Tennessee had gotten accustomed to the role of bridesmaid by the late 1990s. The Vols were a good team throughout the decade, but there was always someone else a little bit better. If it wasn’t Florida in the SEC East, it was Nebraska on the national stage. With Peyton Manning moving on to the NFL, the 1998 college football season didn’t seem ripe for the Vols to take the next step. But that’s exactly what happened. Tennessee ran the table through a difficult schedule and won the national championship.
Tee Martin replaced Peyton behind center and was supported by Travis Henry at running back and Peerless Price at wide receiver. The Volunteer offense was a good one. But the defense was even better–a Top 10 unit nationally, led by All-American linebacker Al Wilson.
That defense wasn’t immediately apparent. Tennessee needed to escape Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse team in a 34-33 shootout to start the season. But the Volunteer D would be settled in when they met Florida two weeks later.
The Gators, Steve Spurrier, had turned into one of the most explosive offenses in college football, winning a national championship in 1996 and playing for another in 1995. This year, Florida had another terrific receiver in Travis McGriff, who racked up over 1,400 yards. But the offensive production wasn’t as diversified as in years past. The Gators were still good, and were ranked #2 in the nation coming into their battle with Tennessee. But the Vols won 20-17, moved into the national top 5 themselves and took control of the SEC East.
Tennessee went on to record an impressive 22-3 win over #7 Georgia. The Vols delivered a great escape with a late comeback to beat #10 Arkansas 28-24 in mid-November. Florida kept the pressure on, with their own blowout of Georgia, and a victory over #11 LSU. The Gators got an Orange Bowl bid. But by the end of the regular season, the Vols were still undefeated, and ranked #1 going into the SEC Championship Game.
Florida State was a perennial national contender under Bobby Bowden and this season was no different. The Seminoles had an explosive wide receiver in Peter Warrick, and their defense would rank #3 in the country for points allowed. Florida State opened the season with a solid 23-14 win over a good Texas A&M team. The bid for a national title took a hit with a 24-7 loss to unranked N.C. State on September 12, but the Seminoles gradually bounced back. They beat USC to end September. FSU’s romp through the ACC included victories over ranked foes in Georgia Tech and Virginia. And in a big showdown with Florida, it was the Seminoles coming out with a 23-12 win.
The ACC did not yet have a conference championship game, and going into that first Saturday of December, Florida State was ranked #4. The format of the time said simply that the top two teams in the polls would meet for the national championship, this year in the Fiesta Bowl. The Seminoles had a chance, but they would have to watch and hope they got help.
All of the college football world expected Ohio State to be playing for a national title. The Buckeyes were ranked #1 to start the season. Defensive back Antoine Winfield won the Thorpe Award. Joe Germaine was at quarterback and racked up an impressive 25-7 TD/INT ratio. Michael Wiley ran for over 1,200 yards and David Boston had over 1,400 yards receiving. The offensive line had an All-American in Rob Murphy.
And the Buckeyes delivered on the field. They won September games against ranked teams from West Virginia and Missouri. Ohio State hammered #7 Penn State 28-9 in early October. With Michigan, the defending national co-champion, having lost a couple of early games, and contending Wisconsin not on the schedule, the road to the Fiesta Bowl was wide open for John Cooper and the Buckeyes.
Then an otherwise mediocre team from Michigan State and their mostly no-name coach, Nick Saban, got in the way. The Spartans came to Columbus on November 7 and shocked the nation with a 28-24 upset.
Ohio State still won out the rest of the way, beating Michigan and sophomore quarterback Tom Brady. The Buckeyes would share the Big Ten crown with the Wolverines and the Badgers. But the tiebreakers put Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State settled for a Sugar Bowl bid.
The Pac-10 had its own national contender. UCLA, with All-American quarterback Cade McNown, was throwing the ball all over the field. The Bruins had a two-headed monster at quarterback, with Deshaun Foster and Jermaine Lewis running behind Outland Trophy winner Kris Farris. UCLA’s defense was sketchy, but so was the Pac-10 competition. The Bruins rolled through league play. They were undefeated and ranked #3 in the country. A non-conference game with Miami was scheduled for the first Saturday of December, so the Bruins had to win and hope.
Nebraska had shared the previous year’s national championship with Michigan, in addition to titles in 1994 and 1995. Tom Osborne, the legendary head coach, retired, but the beat was expected to go under successor Frank Solich. And when the Cornhuskers hammered #9 Washington 55-7 to end September, they were sitting at #2 in the nation.
But Washington was flawed and, Nebraska’s own weaknesses quickly showed up. They lost to Texas A&M. At the end of October, the Cornhuskers lost again to Texas and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ricky Williams. The door was open for a new team to step up in the Big 12.
Kansas State had been coming on under Bill Snyder, winning a major bowl game in 1997, and ranked #6 to start this season. The Wildcats had an exceptionally versatile quarterback in Michael Bishop, who could do it all. Darnell McDonald was a good receiver and Jeff Kelly an All-American at linebacker. K-State had escaped Colorado in October, risen to #2 in the polls, and then delivered the win the program was waiting for—a 40-30 victory over Nebraska on November 14. It was Kansas State who reached the first Saturday of December ranked #2 and in control of its own destiny for the national championship
The Big 12 was split into divisions, and Texas A&M won the South, with Lombardi Award winning linebacker Dat Nguyen. When December 5 arrived, the Aggies carried the hopes of the teams on the outside looking in—UCLA and Florida State—for the national championship.
In a thrilling overtime finish, Texas A&M upset Kansas State 36-33. At the same time, UCLA’s defensive woes were finally doing them in. Miami won a 49-45 shootout. Florida State would elevate to #2. When underdog Mississippi State hung in with Tennessee that night, it looked like complete chaos might rain down and let Ohio State back into the picture. But the Vols asserted themselves in the second half, won 24-14 and punched their ticket to Tempe.
There were only four major bowls at this time—Sugar, Rose, Orange, and Fiesta—and the conference commitments meant there was no room for Kansas State to get in, once Ohio State and Florida got their bids. The Wildcats fell all the way to the Alamo Bowl where they lost to Drew Brees and Purdue, 37-34. In another notable game on the bowl undercard, Tulane completed an undefeated season by beating BYU 41-27.
McNabb had gotten Syracuse into the Orange Bowl with a miracle across-the-field throw to beat Virginia Tech and win the Big East title. For the second straight year, Syracuse looked overmatched on the national stage though, as Florida cruised to a 31-10 win.
The Big Ten made its mark—Ohio State took care of business with a 24-14 win over A&M in the Sugar Bowl. And Wisconsin, with Ron Dayne running wild, won a Rose Bowl thriller over UCLA, 38-31.
That set the stage for the Fiesta Bowl and the 1 vs. 2 showdown. As games go, this wouldn’t be a classic, but it was a good one. Price’s four catches went for 199 yards, including a big touchdown in the fourth quarter. Tennessee led 23-9. Florida State cut the lead down to 23-16 and got the ball back for one last try, but an interception sealed the title for the Vols. It had been a long time coming. The Tennessee Volunteers were national champions.