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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / University of Tennessee mascot Smokey cheers with fans during the Vols' football game against Georgia on Oct. 5 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Until Saturday night, Margaret Wood never had witnessed a college football game in person. She had watched a lot of University of Tennessee games on television from her Pulaski, Tennessee, home, but that was it.

But about six months ago she met Darrin Watts of Cullman, Alabama. The two 49-year-olds began dating. Because Darrin's 50th birthday arrives next Friday, and because he lives and dies with the Alabama football team, she decided to buy them a pair of tickets to attend UT's game Saturday night against host Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"I've never seen a game anywhere," she said. "I'm so excited."

With top-ranked Alabama more than a 30-point favorite for the late-night matchup, some expected the biggest excitement to come from the new lighting gizmo that was supposed to bathe the stadium in crimson, much as Georgia's Sanford Stadium broke out red lights for Notre Dame's visit back in September.

As if to support this theory, easily the loudest roar of the pregame festivities arose when the lighting spectacular was first put into play some 43 minutes from kickoff.

Or as lifelong Alabama fan Dave Lisenby — whose wife Beverly (Carter) Lisenby grew up in Chattanooga and graduated from Central High School — noted: "We're here for the game, but we're also here to see the light show."

There was a time, long before Nick Saban took over as coach of the Crimson Tide and right about the time Bear Bryant retired at the close of the 1982 season, that the game itself, for so long played on the third Saturday in October, was enough.

In fact, lifelong Tennessee fan John Peery, who played in UT's Pride of the Southland Band during the 1970s, still could vividly recall early Saturday evening how "Bama came to Knoxville Bear's last year and we sent him home with a 35-28 loss."

If you're a Volunteers fan, that was the start of a pretty good run. UT won four straight in the series from 1982 to 1985. Then Bama went nine straight years without a loss. Then Tennessee won 10 of the next 12 under Phillip Fulmer.

But from the time Saban took over the Tide before the 2007 season, it's been all Crimson, with or without the light show, a dozen straight wins for the Tide prior to Saturday's kickoff.

It had all become so one-sided heading into this weekend that when Watts was asked if he still considered it a rivalry, he replied "No."

Lisenby disagreed, noting, "For me, it's still a rivalry."

Added Peery: "I want it to be a rivalry. I want to go to the game not knowing if they're (the Tide) going to be the winner."

This is not to say that the former intensity of the rivalry, when Bama was the biggest game on UT's schedule and the Vols were a close second to Auburn on the Tide's schedule, is completely gone.

As Wood and Watts were making their way from their car to the stadium, she was given a serious trash talk by a Tide backer.

Responding with noteworthy constraint, Wood said, "It doesn't matter. Jesus loves us all."

Stunned, the heckler replied: "Whew! You shut me up quick."

There has been no quick fix for what has plagued UT football against Alabama for so long, and maybe it will last until Saban retires.

But regardless of the outcome, Wood, seeing her Vols in person for the first time ever, got her pregame wish before the first quarter ended. Having picked off an Alabama pass, UT drove for a touchdown and tied the game at 7 with 4:21 left in the opening period, which satisfied her desire that "I hope and pray that we at least score."

Never mind that the Tide scored again before the first period was done.

Whoever won the game, Peery, the former UT band member, believed he'd see the Big Orange leave Bryant-Denny Stadium with at least one victory on Saturday.

As any alum of the Pride of the Southland Band would, Peery proudly proclaimed, "I know we'll win halftime."

some text Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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