The 1998 Tennessee Volunteers gathered for what looked to be a year of re-tooling. The previous four years had seen a quarterback named Peyton Manning at helm, but with his departure for the Indianapolis Colts, a new signal-caller had to be found. And while the Vols had won the SEC title the prior year and gone to the Orange Bowl, they did have a bugaboo to overcome—they’d lost to Florida five straight years and this at a time when the Gators and Vols dominated the SEC East.
The ’97 season had seen a stroke of good luck happen when Florida lost twice, but if Tennessee wanted to get over the hump—just in the division, much less the conference or the nation, they were going to have to find a way to beat Steve Spurrier’s Gators. The game was set for September 19 in Knoxville.
A big test awaited in non-conference play and that was a trip to Syracuse. The Orangemen rivaled Virginia Tech as the top program in the Big East at this time and their own quarterback was one headed for NFL fame—Donovan McNabb had led the ‘Cuse to a conference championship the prior year and was hoping for more this time around.
Tennessee game into the game ranked 10th, while Syracuse was 17th, and the game was everything college football fans hoped. McNabb was razor-sharp, hitting 22/28 for 300 yards, while Tennessee had a ground game behind freshman Jamal Lewis—another player with a tremendous NFL future ahead of him, mostly with the Baltimore Ravens—who gained 140 yards. Syracuse led 33-31 late in the fourth quarter and it was time for Manning’s replacement Tee Martin to prove his mettle.
Martin moved the Vols into a field goal range, where Jeff Hail nailed a 27-yarder on the last play for a one-point win. Tennessee moved up to seventh in the polls and after a bye week and a little more attrition, nudged to #6 as they got ready to host #2 Florida.
If anyone had questions about Tennessee’s offense, the events in Knoxville wouldn’t have persuaded them otherwise. The Vols attack was essentially non-existent, but their defense stood tall. A unit led by All-American linebacker Al Wilson, on his way to five Pro Bowl seasons with the Denver Broncos, shut down the Florida running game and the Gators made mistakes. Tennessee collected four turnovers and forced overtime at 17-17.
Hall kicked a field goal on UT’s possession. Florida lined up to answer, but missed. It wasn’t the most authoritative of wins, but Tennessee had beaten its nemesis and had firm control of the SEC East.
Georgia was hoping to upend the applecart and after Tennessee beat Houston and what was then a lousy Auburn, the Bulldogs were waiting in Athens, ranked #7. It was no contest, at least for the Volunteer defense. Tennessee chipped its way to a 9-3 lead, scored 13 points in the third quarter and coasted to a 22-3 win.
By this point they were settled in at #3 in the polls. Ohio State and UCLA held the top two spots. If this scenario would have occurred just one year earlier then Tennessee would have needed a double dose of help, as the Buckeyes and Bruins would have been headed for the Rose Bowl. But 1998 was the first year of the BCS Championship Series, and the Fiesta Bowl would host the top two teams regardless of conference affiliation. Only one of the Big Ten-Pac-10 combo needed to lose for head coach Philip Fulmer and the Vols to get their shot.
That help came one year later although not in the form of an outright upset. UCLA was unimpressive in a four-point win over Stanford, while Tennessee met Alabama at home. The Crimson Tide were not a great team, but they were a club that would win seven games and reach a bowl. Tennessee built a 14-3 lead and controlled the ground game behind running back Travis Henry. Then, after a ‘Bama touchdown, wide receiver and return man Peerless Price, another future NFL starter, took a kickoff 100 yards to the house. Tennessee never looked back and won 35-18, moving up to #2 in the polls. They controlled their own destiny for a title date with Ohio State, who was seen as the clear team to beat on the national stage.
Tennessee beat South Carolina and UAB, and on November 7 the Vols got even more help. Ohio State was stunned at home by Michigan State. With the Vols moving to #1 in the country, it was essentially unthinkable that anything other than an outright defeat could deny them their place in Tempe on January 4.
One week later in Knoxville, Arkansas nearly pulled the shocker. They led the Vols 21-3 and still clung to a 24-21 lead in the latter part of the fourth quarter while holding the ball in Tennessee territory. Arkansas fumbled. With a second chance handed to them on a silver platter, Martin led the offense down inside the 5-yard-line, when Henry scored in the closing seconds.
The Tennessee offense was still disrespected and the reason they weren’t seen as an overwhelming #1, but against both Syracuse and Arkansas—teams who would end the season in the Orange and Citrus Bowls respectively—Martin’s unit had come through. The win all but secured a perfect regular season, as blowouts of Kentucky and Vanderbilt by a combined 100-21 were all that followed prior to Championship Saturday.
On December 5, it was Tennessee and Kansas State who controlled their destiny to play for the national championship, with UCLA in third. All three were undefeated and controversy was looming, even if the Vols had nothing to worry about.
It turned out the controversy wouldn’t be about undefeated teams. By the time Tennessee took the field in prime-time against Mississippi State, K-State had lost the Big 12 Championship to Texas A&M and UCLA dropped its season finale at Miami. The Vols played for three quarters like they wanted to make it a trifecta, trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter to an 8-3 Bulldog squad that probably wouldn’t have finished in the top half of the SEC East.
Martin again responded at the key moment, throwing one touchdown pass, then turning a turnover into another quick strike. Tennessee prevailed 24-14, giving Fulmer his second straight conference title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl (from 1998-2005 the championship game was played in the bowl itself, not given a separate championship game title as it is today).
Florida State would be the opponent and while Bobby Bowden had coached some great Seminole teams this wasn’t one of them. The offense was no more fearsome than Tennessee’s, even though Bowden’s reputation and the lack of respect for the Tennessee offense—including by yours truly, in the interests of full disclosure—led FSU to be the favorite, in spite of having one loss against an inferior schedule.
In retrospect the underrating of Tennessee that so many of us did looks just plain stupid. As mentioned, Syracuse and Arkansas had gotten juicy bowl slots. Florida rolled to a 9-2 record and an Orange Bowl bid. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State were all quality opponents, and the Vols had met all comers, winning in blowouts, winning in close ones, winning with defense, but being able to call on their offense.
What I personally remember about the Tennessee-Florida State battle is being stuck in a train most of that day, as a snowstorm turned a ride from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee into an 18-hour affair and then having to trudge back to my apartment through the drifts, exhausted and the game having started. It took a quarter for any action to happen but early in the second period Tennessee scored first.
The Vols kicked a field goal, but Florida State was called for roughing. Rather than adhere to the dumb adage that you never take points off the board, Fulmer chose to keep the drive alive and got seven points instead of three. Then cornerback Dwayne Goodrich picked off a pass intended for Peter Warrick and went to the house. It was 14-0. Warrick was a star receiver who would take over the championship game one year later for Bowden. Tonight he was rendered useless by Goodrich and the Tennessee secondary. It was 14-0 at half.
Florida State came back in the third quarter and made it 14-9, with a missed extra point keeping the margin at five points. It was into the fourth quarter when Martin made the play of the game, hitting Price on a 79-yard strike and opening the lead to 20-9. The Vols added a field goal. It looked over, but Florida State had one more push left in them.
The Seminoles got into the end zone and cut the lead to 23-16. Then Henry gave Vol Nation a collective heart attack when he fumbled it away, but defensive back Steve Johnson preserved the game with an interception. Tennessee was national champs.