The Vols knew the road ahead was going to be a tough. How does a team replace once in lifetime players like Peyton Manning and Leonard Little, and how does it bounce back from an Orange Bowl loss like the one they suffered against Nebraska? The team saw what it would take to play for a National Championship, now they just had to work hard to get there. Tennessee had to become a team unified with common goals. One, win the SEC for a second straight year, and then with enough breaks, win their own National Championship.
Beginning in the winter workouts, going through spring practice and August preseason practice, the Volunteers adopted a blue-collar motto that this was a “team without stars” and that anyone with a “T” on their helmet could step up and be a hero.
Junior quarterback Tee Martin, who had patiently waited his time two years behind a legend in Peyton Manning, finally had his chance to lead the team. Martin was a different type of quarterback, whose feet could be just as dangerous as his arm. The Vols returned star running back Jamal Lewis to the backfield, along with fellow sophomores Travis Henry and Travis Stephens. Peerless Price and Jermaine Copeland led a steady but talented receiving corps, and the bulk of the offensive line returned, anchored by center Spencer Riley.
On defense, there was no question on who was the leader. Al Wilson was now the middle linebacker and with his personality, could literally scare a teammate into playing above their abilities. End Corey Terry and tackle Darwin Walker led the line while Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, and Eric Westmoreland led the hard-hitting linebacker unit. The secondary returned safeties Fred White and Deon Grant, with starting corners Dwayne Goodrich and Steve Johnson.
The upcoming season was going to have another reason to be special. In early June 1998, The Voice of the Vols, John Ward, announced in a press conference that 1998 would be his final year broadcasting. In the only way he knew how to do it, John Ward simply stood at the pedestal and gave two words; “It’s time.” After 31 years of announcing for the Tennessee Volunteers, the Voice was retiring, but what a way to go out.
(John Ward announces retirement: http://youtu.be/t-n0sVW8FPI)
The Vols opened the 1998 campaign at #17 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, a real Orange Bowl game in September. The Vols received the opening kickoff and spent no time driving down the field on the back of Jamal Lewis, who burst through the line for a 31-yard run. On the sixth play of the drive, Tee Martin rolled right and found Peerless Price right at the end zone marker for the first touchdown of the season. In the second quarter, Syracuse QB Donovan McNabb, an early Heisman candidate, led the Orangemen on a 14-play, 71-yard drive to tie the game up at 7-7. The Vols caught a break later in the second period when Fred White recovered a fumble, giving the Vols the ball at the Syracuse 15. With less than a minute left, Martin sneaked in from the one to give the Vols a 14-7 lead. McNabb worked some magic before the half, and led the Orangemen offense downfield to set up a field goal to make it a 14-10 game. In the third period, Syracuse drove the field but held to a field goal. Tee Martin led the Vols downfield, hitting Peerless Price for a long gain. Shawn Bryson wheeled off a twenty-yard run, and Jamal Lewis finished the drive with a two-yard dive to make it 21-13. Shortly after, Darwin Walker forced a McNabb fumble that end Jeff Coleman recovered. Jeff Hall gave the Vols the 24-13 lead, setting up a wild fourth quarter. McNabb led Syracuse on a 12-play drive for a touchdown to cut the game to 24-19. The Volunteer offense went three and out, and Syracuse stormed down the field. McNabb snuck in from the one, and gave Syracuse a 27-24 lead after just four plays. On the following drive, Martin provided his own impersonation of McNabb, scrambling for 55-yards on third and 10. After an additional 12-yard penalty for a hit out of bounds after his run, Martin found Price in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Vols the 31-27 lead. Syracuse was not finished however, and took the lead back after two field goals to make it 33-31. The Vols found themselves at the 18-yard line with just over two minutes left in the game to drive for a field goal. The first miracle of the season occurred on 4th-and-7 at the Vols’ 35-yard line, when Syracuse was called with pass interference after a Martin incompletion. The late call gave the Vols offense some life, driving to the ten-yard line where Jeff Hall kicked the winning field goal as time expired. The Vols had escaped with a 34-33 victory over a very tough Syracuse team. Jamal Lewis gained 81 of his 140 rushing yards in the fourth quarter and Martin, who never lost his cool throughout the contest, led the offense admirably. The defense gave up over 300 yards passing to McNabb, but in the end held Syracuse to field goals instead of touchdowns late in the pivotal fourth quarter. It was a thrilling start to the season.
(Syracuse Game ESPN Broadcast: http://youtu.be/tbKpM0Qs5kE)
As thrilling as the season opener was, everyone had the following game circled. #2 Florida came to Knoxville to face the #6 Vols with five straight wins in the series, but the stage was set for the Vols to get the Gator-monkey off their back. Florida got the ball and drove to the Vols’ goal line when Al Wilson caused the first of three fumbles for the night, setting a school record. Florida got the ball back and drove the Vols’ 5-yard line but the Volunteer defense stood tall, forcing Florida to kick a field goal. The Volunteers got the running game going, with the offensive line blowing up holes for Lewis, but it was Shawn Bryson who got the honors, taking a simple fullback trap play 57-yards for the Tennessee touchdown. Tennessee’s defense began getting to Florida’s rotating quarterbacks Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer, and even when the Gator offense got momentum, the Vols would get a sack or force a fumble. The Vols got a Jeff Hall field goal in the second quarter, but Florida would drive for a tying touchdown before halftime to make it 10-10. In the third quarter, the Volunteer special teams helped the cause with a David Leaverton punt downed at the five-yard line. The defense held the Gators and gave the Vol offense great field position. Tee Martin paid off their hard work, lofting a pass before being slammed by the Florida pass rush to hit Peerless Price on an amazing 29-yard touchdown. The Gators got the score back though, getting a 70-yard pass and catch touchdown before the end of the third quarter. With less than seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter, safety Deon Grant made an electrifying interception, coming across the field to make the one handed grab and thwart another Florida drive. There would be no scoring in the fourth, and Tennessee found itself in its first ever Overtime game with the score tied 17-17. Florida won the toss and gave the Vols the first possession. Tennessee only gained a net of one yard, but Jeff Hall connected on the 41-yard line to put the Vols up 20-17. Florida got the ball and immediately got a first down. The Volunteers defense tightened, not allowing the Gators any further ground. Florida lined up for the 32-yard field goal, and the crowd erupted as the kick sailed wide left. As John Ward called it, “No siree, no siree! Final score Tennessee 20, Florida 17…pandemonium reigns!” The home crowd erupted in joy and rushed the field. The goal posts were snapped, as was the Vols losing streak to the Gators. SEC Defensive Player of the Week Al Wilson and the Vols had sent a warning message to the rest of the SEC, “Offense sells the tickets, but Defense wins championships!”
(Florida game CBS Broadcast, John Ward calls: http://youtu.be/8CW5Z_WONtI)
After winning two straight nail biters, the #3 Vols needed a breather, hosting the University of Houston Cougars in what was Tee Martin’s coming out party. After the first two games, Martin had just 16 completions in 46 attempts and ranked 10th among SEC quarterbacks, and the Vols were running dead last in the conference in first downs and passing offense. However, the stats would come against the outmatched Cougars. Martin completed his first four passes in a row and hit receiver Cedrick Wilson for a 33-yard score. On the first play of the second quarter, Martin got another score thanks to the hard running of Jamal Lewis, who took a short screen pass 17 yards to pay dirt. The Tennessee defense kept the Cougars offense off the field, and Martin again found luck with the short pass, this time a screen to Shawn Bryson that he took across the field for a 63-yard score. Tennessee led 21-0 at halftime, but suffered a major blow when defense leader Al Wilson suffered a shoulder separation. Wilson was not really needed this night however, and his backup, Chris Ramseur, got some much-needed experience. Houston scored their lone touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter, so the Vols offense kicked into overdrive. Lewis broke free for a 59-yard score down the sideline to make it 28-7, and then Martin threw his fourth touchdown pass of the night, this one to Price. Up with the comfortable 35-7 lead, the backups came in for the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Burney Veazey connected with tight end John Finlayson for a 21-yard touchdown to mark the end of the scoring. The Vols won convincingly 42-7, racking up the best offensive stats of the year. The win was tempered with the knowledge the next two games were SEC road games and the defense would be without Al Wilson for at least the first one.
(Phillip Fulmer Coaches Show for Syracuse, Florida, Houston: http://youtu.be/0za5AILHStE)
Tennessee took the trip to the Plains the following week to take on a disheveled Auburn team in a rematch of the 1997 SEC Championship Game. Auburn looked to threaten on their first drive, running down the field to the 10-yard line. Defensive end Shaun Ellis made the play of the game when Auburn attempted a shuttle pass but Corey Terry hit the QB, and Ellis caught the ball and began rumbling down the field. Caught from behind on the 30, Ellis shrugged off the would-be tackler and finally made it to the end zone on a 90-yard interception return. The Volunteer defense stuffed Auburn on its next possession, and the offense took over at the 33. All they needed was one play, as Jamal Lewis broke up the middle, cut to the sideline, and outran the Auburn defense 67 yards to the end zone. Barely five minutes into the game, Tennessee led 14-0 and had run just one offensive play. Later in the quarter, Jeff Hall connected on a 46-yard field goal to make it 17-0 and that would end the Vol scoring for the day. In the second quarter, Auburn got a field goal and then had a chance to change the game. The Auburn defense caused Tee Martin to fumble the ball after a vicious hit and recovered on the Volunteer one-yard line. This set the stage for one of the more memorable goal line stands in school history. Four straight plays Auburn tried to punch it into the end zone and four straight times they were denied. The Tennessee defense held Auburn to just two more field goals the rest of the way, and the Vols won 17-9 in an ugly game. Jamal Lewis provided the offense for Tennessee, gaining 140 yards, until he tore his ACL after a long run in the fourth quarter and would be out for the rest of the season. With the loss of Lewis, no one knew where the offense would come from starting the following week against the Georgia Bulldogs.
(Auburn CBS Broadcast: http://youtu.be/LSy-f4pXHVc)
The following week the #4 Vols met #7 Georgia between the hedges in a showdown with both SEC and National implications. Both teams stood at 4-0 and wanted to establish themselves as the top program in the SEC. Tennessee would have to open the playbook for Martin, and depend on the dynamic duo of the two Travis’s, Stephens and Henry, for the rushing attack. Leading into the game, most of the media played up the performances of Bulldog QB, Quincy Carter. The Vols defense took it upon themselves to have that talk shut down. In the first quarter, the Vols got on the board first with a Hall 27-yard field goal. The Bulldogs followed up with one of their own to tie the game after a long completion to get them in range, but that would be it for Georgia. Even with two first half interceptions, Martin’s confidence began to grow, and Hall added two more field goals in the second quarter to make it 9-3 at halftime. In the third quarter, the Vols wasted little time putting the game away. Martin’s 30-yard scramble put the Vols at the four-yard line, and Martin hit Cedrick Wilson for the three-yard score over UGA’s All-SEC and Heisman candidate Champ Bailey. Tennessee’s defense kept getting after Carter, who badly overthrew a deep pass that was intercepted by Dwayne Goodrich. From there, Martin and Travis Stephens took the Vols down the field, where Martin hit Price on a short pass for the touchdown. Suddenly, the Vols were up 22-3 and the Bulldog fans either sat silently or began leaving Samford Stadium. The Vols slammed the door on the Bulldogs for the eighth straight time. “Team Travis” combined for 160 yards on 36 carries, plenty enough of an attack to ease the pain of losing Lewis. The Vols were now 5-0 for the first time since 1992 and in the driver’s seat of the SEC East.
The next week brought Alabama to Neyland Stadium in the annual “Third Saturday of October” game. Tennessee was heavily favored, and looking to go 6-0 for the first time in 29 years. Tennessee took the opening kickoff and made a statement, driving 76 yards to score the first touchdown of the game with Tee Martin sneaking in from the one. After an exchange of punts, Alabama was able to drive and get a field goal. Both teams had drives ending with missed field goal attempts. The Vols took the ball on a 12-play drive, with the bulk coming on the ground. The Vols converted on a fourth and one, and made it to the six-yard line after a huge Travis Henry run. Martin took a rollout to the left of the field, tucked the ball and dove in for a six-yard score to make it 14-3 going into the half. Both teams again missed field goals to open the third quarter, and with five minutes left in the period, Alabama struck with a 44-yard touchdown run by Shaun Alexander, the first touchdown the Vols defense had given up in 11 quarters. The Tide made the 2-point conversion to make it 14-11, making the home crowd uneasy. This all turned in a matter of seconds, as Peerless Price took the kickoff from the goal line up the middle, sprinted to his right, and got the blocks down the field to take the return all the way for a 100-yard touchdown. The momentum had turned to the Vols favor. A few minutes later after an Alabama punt, Tennessee went to work to put the game out of reach. Travis Henry took the honors from the one, completing an 11-play, 84-yard drive in which he carried the load, rushing nine times for 65 yards. This gave the Vols a 28-11 lead. Alabama answered with a touchdown by quarterback Andrew Zow, mainly against Vols reserves. Tennessee’s defense held the Tide on their last possession, and Tennessee took over with just over three minutes left in the game. Henry scored from the five with less than a minute left to make the final score of 35-18. The Vols now had four straight wins over the Tide. Martin finished 10/14 for 117 yards in the air, but the day belonged to Henry, who carried the ball 22 times for 113 yards and two scores.
(Phillip Fulmer Coach’s Show for Auburn, Georgia, Alabama : http://youtu.be/IfTl6gtE8_M)
After the satisfying victory over Alabama, #3 Tennessee took a Halloween trip to Columbia to face a downtrodden South Carolina squad. Tee Martin would prove to be a monster to both the Gamecocks and the NCAA record books. After a USC turnover on the first possession, Martin went 3-for-3 and capped the Volunteer drive with a 21-yard strike to Jermaine Copeland. Two series later, Martin hit four more straight passes and ended the drive with a two-yard score to Wilson. South Carolina drove to the Vols 6-yard line the next possession, but defensive tackle Billy Ratliff blocked the field goal attempt. Martin stayed perfect throughout the half, leading the Vols downfield and hitting Peerless Price for a 13-yard touchdown before halftime. Tennessee was up 21-0 and Martin had found himself at 16-of-16, already eclipsing the record of 12 straight completions set by Peyton Manning. Martin and the offense kept pouring it on in the third quarter, with a short pass to Price turning into a 71-yard touchdown. Just a few minutes later, the Vols opened the running game and Shawn Bryson scored on a five-yard run. After South Carolina went three-and-out again, Martin broke the NCAA record with his 23rd straight completion, and 24th straight over a two game span. He finally missed on his 24th attempt, which was just a little too high for receiver David Martin to bring in. Martin didn’t let it bother him, and broke a 30-yard run to the Gamecock one-yard line, letting fullback Phillip Crosby have the honors and get the score. Tennessee led 42-0, and Martin’s day was done. With Volunteer reserves all over the field, South Carolina got two scores, but Tennessee got another from the reserves. The Vols offense had rolled under Martin, picking up the 49-14 win and setting school, conference, and NCAA passing marks along the way. Martin finished 23-of-24 for 315 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that will never be forgotten.
(South Carolina broadcast with John Ward: http://youtu.be/wR-3pfEzXlE)
With four games left on the schedule, Tennessee had to show they deserved to be in the national spotlight. UAB entered Knoxville as 42-point underdogs against the #2 Volunteers for Homecoming. The outcome of the game was never in doubt, as Tennessee went at UAB with the same blue-collar ethic they had deployed all season. Tennessee led 10-0 after the first quarter behind a Jeff Hall field goal and Travis Henry 18-yard run. The other Travis, Stephens, took the ball in from 11-yards out in the second quarter to make it 17-3, and Martin led the Vols on another drive before halftime to score on a one-yard sneak to make it 24-3. Opening the third quarter, Martin hit Cedrick Wilson for a 28-yard score off a post pattern. UAB and Tennessee traded field goals to close out the third quarter. Hall again connected on a field goal, and UAB closed all scoring later in the fourth with a 32-yard touchdown run. Tennessee secured a 37-13 win, and was at 8-0 for the first time since 1956. Coaches, players, and fans all alike hoped the UAB performance was enough to impress both voters and the BCS computer systems. It turned out it did, along with a very unlikely upset occurring in the north just a few minutes after the UAB victory. #1 Ohio State lost to an unranked Michigan State team, and when the ranking came out the following day, Tennessee was ranked #1 for the first time since 1956.
To win a championship, a team needs a combination of things go right; stay healthy, be good, and have some luck along the way. Luck would play its way the next week as the #1 Vols faced their biggest threat the rest of the season, with undefeated #8 Arkansas coming to Neyland. On a cold and rainy November Saturday, Arkansas gave the Vols all they wanted in the first half, going up 21-3. Razorbacks quarterback Clint Stoerner hit receivers all over the field, getting three touchdowns. Tennessee was able to answer, with Martin hitting Price for a 36-yard strike before halftime to make it 21-10. After the Hogs’ got a field goal to start the second half, the Vols offense line started hammering the Arkansas defense. Travis Henry was the beneficiary, picking up huge chunks of yardage as the rain continued to pour. Tee Martin scored off a rollout to cut the score to 24-17, and Tennessee began picking up momentum. With time under two minutes in the third quarter, Jeff Hall made it 24-20 and set the stage for a wild fourth quarter finish. Arkansas drove down the field but Al Wilson forced the field goal attempt with a sack. Deon Grant blocked the kick, and Wilson returned the ball downfield to the Arkansas 36-yard line. The Vols could not move the ball, and Arkansas got the ball back. The Hogs went three-and-out and lined up to punt. The snap sailed above the head of the punter, who raced after the live ball and kicked it through the end zone for a safety to make it a 24-22 ballgame. After the free kick, the Vols had the ball on the 50 with just over two minutes left on what would probably be their last shot. The offense bogged down and after a fourth down incompletion, gave the ball back. As he was coming off the field to the sidelines, Tee Martin was told by Billy Ratliff not to take off his pads, the defense would get them the ball back. And sure enough, it was Ratliff who caused Arkansas’ All-American guard Brandon Burlsworth to stumble back after the snap and trip Stoerner, who fumbled the ball as he was trying to catch himself. Ratliff fell on the ball and gave the offense one last shot at the win with 43-yards to go. With just 1:40 left, the strategy was simple…give the ball to Travis Henry. Henry pounded the ball five straight plays, and none was more needed than the last carry over the top from the one-yard line. Somehow, someway, the Vols had come back to get the win 28-24. Henry cemented himself at running back, rushing 32 times for 197 yards and the game-winning touchdown. At the end of the season, everyone knew that it just simply had to be destiny with how the game played out and that Lady Luck was smiling down on the Vols.
(Arkansas highlights: http://youtu.be/Jaoma30S3FU)
The Kentucky Wildcats came into Neyland the following week after going through tragedy, with several football players involved in a car accident. The ‘Cats also brought their high-powered offense led by Tim Couch. For Tennessee, the Vols could clinch the SEC East and a spot in the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year and it would be the final home game for 22 seniors, a class that went a Tennessee record 45-5 over its four years. After being held on their first possession, the Vols would score on 10 of their next 11 drives. Jeff Hall got two field goals before Kentucky got on top 7-6, but it was all Vols from there. Peerless Price made an amazing one-handed catch good for 41 yards that set up Shawn Bryson on a one-yard score. Bryson went in again for the two-point conversion to make it 14-7. Kentucky moved the ball downfield but missed a field goal. Tennessee moved the ball to the 45 where Martin hit Cedrick Wilson with a 55-yard scoring strike. The Vols forced another punt, and three plays later, Shawn Bryson made another memory in his last home game. Like in the Florida game, Bryson broke through on the fullback trap for a 58-yard touchdown score to make it 28-7. The Vols defense held the Cats’ offense again, with Darwin Walker getting the sack against Couch on fourth down. This set up a 47-yard field goal by Hall. Kentucky again went for it on fourth down on their next possession, just to see the Couch pass broken up. Tennessee drove 41 yards to score the final touchdown of the half on a Phillip Crosby one-yard dive. The Vols were up easily on the Wildcats 38-7 at halftime and the game essentially over. Kentucky had gone 0-for-3 on fourth down and each time led to Volunteer points. Kentucky picked up a score in the third quarter, but Tennessee reeled off three straight touchdowns; Travis Henry got a two-yard plunge, Tee Martin went 33-yards and Travis Stephens completed a drive for the reserves with a one-yard dive. Kentucky picked up a late score, but the Vols had sealed the SEC East with a 59-21 romp over the Wildcats and their NCAA second-best offense. Jeff Hall became the SEC’s career scoring leader with his next to last PAT.
Reservations had already been made for Atlanta, but one last interstate game was left to play. So much was on the line, Tennessee fans all but made the Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville another Tennessee home game. A Knoxville cartoonist poked fun with a “Where’s Waldo” like depiction, with the lone Vandy fan selling his ticket to the game to Vols fans. A win over Vandy would give Tennessee its first perfect season in 42 years. With the Vols up 3-0 in the second quarter, the offense got the ball deep in Vanderbilt territory. All it took was two plays to get in the end zone; after Henry went for 21 yards, Peerless Price did the rest, taking a pass 67 yards to pay dirt after breaking three tackles. Henry scored on the next possession, taking it 12-yards in for the score to make it 17-0. After a Deon Grant interception, Jeff Hall booted a 42-yarder before halftime to make it 20-0. The Volunteer defense got their own score on the second play of the third quarter. Linebacker Eric Westmoreland leveled a Commodore receiver, forcing a fumble that Chris Ramseur picked up and returned 12 yards for the touchdown. The defense pressured Vanderbilt’s quarterback throughout the third and fourth quarters, resulting in interceptions by Dwayne Goodrich and Fred White, and a fumble recovery by Darwin Walker. This led to 14 more points on a Martin sneak and a Travis Stephens dive to make it 41-0. As the clock ticked down on the game, the realization came that the Vols had run the table to be 11-0 for the first time since 1938 and a perfect 8-0 conference record for the first time since 1967.
The following day on the Phillip Fulmer Coach’s Show, the Volunteers head coach and AD Doug Dickey presented John Ward a special video tribute of the Voice’s career as it was the final show for Ward (http://youtu.be/rMvrlTgrTJo). Singer Kenny Chesney during the season also paid tribute to the Voice with his song, “Touchdown Tennessee” (http://youtu.be/61DnOsJd1Jc)
It had been an amazing run to get to 11-0 and become the #1 ranked team in the country, but it would go all for not if the Vols did not take care of business in Atlanta against the SEC West winner, Mississippi State Bulldogs under Jackie Sherrill. The Vols no doubt had some help getting to this point along the way; the pass interference and Jeff Hall’s field goal at Syracuse; Al Wilson’s three forced fumbles and Florida’s missed field goal in overtime; Shaun Ellis’ return of an interception for a touchdown against Auburn; the two Travis’ stepping in for an injured Jamal Lewis; Peerless Price playing each game without peer; Tee Martin’s record setting day against South Carolina; the miracle fumble and recovery against Arkansas with Travis Henry bulldozing his way to the end zone after five straight runs; Shawn Bryson’s runs against the Gators and Kentucky; and Tennessee overtaking Vanderbilt Stadium. To give another angle, Tennessee was playing in one of three games that the media dubbed, “Championship Saturday”. Upsets had been the story of the day, as UCLA had lost to Miami in a game rescheduled from earlier in the season, and former Tennessee quarterback Branndon Stewart led Texas A&M over undefeated Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game.
The Vols had been to the SEC Championship Game just the year before and won it, so the team knew what it would take. However, it looked like Tennessee might follow the curse of Championship Saturday. It took Tennessee once again getting the breaks exactly when they needed to overcome the Bulldogs. The Vols found themselves down 7-0 at the end of the first quarter when Tee Martin overthrew Peerless Price on a deep ball, just for the Bulldog defensive back to return it for a 70-yard touchdown. Safety Deon Grant got his own interception in the second quarter, leading to a 20-yard drive capped off by Travis Stephens’ two-yard leap. Tennessee went ahead with a Jeff Hall field goal before halftime. Neither team could do much in the third quarter, but the fireworks lit up in the fourth. With just under nine minutes left in the game, Tennessee punted and saw Mississippi State take it all the way for an 83-yard touchdown return. Tennessee was behind 14-10 with the defense not giving up a touchdown and the largely Tennessee crowd was stunned. I ended up the Bulldogs lead only lasted 28 seconds. Tee Martin kept the offense collected; reminding his teammates it might be their final shot. The offense moved downfield and from the State 41, Martin hit Peerless Price in the back corner of the end zone to give the Vols the 17-14 lead. Tennessee needed some insurance, and they got it. On the first play after kickoff, Corey Terry sacked the State QB, Wayne Madkin, causing him to lose the football. Al Wilson got his hands on it temporarily before Eric Westmoreland finally corralled it at the Bulldogs 26-yard line. On first down, Martin found a wide-open Cedrick Wilson for the game clinching score. There was still five minutes left in the game, but the Tennessee defense smothered the State offense as it had all game. The Vols held and won the SEC Championship, 24-14, finished 12-0 for the first time in school history, and assured a spot in the Fiesta Bowl as the only undefeated contender left. The question now, was against whom?
On Selection Sunday, it was announced that one-loss Florida State had leap-frogged from #4 to #2 and would play Tennessee for the National Championship. As would happen several times in the following seasons, there was controversy on Florida State being picked above several other one-loss teams. Nevertheless, the first ever BCS Title Game was now all set up for a clash in the desert between the Volunteers and the Seminoles, led by the legendary coach Bobby Bowden and All-American receiver Peter Warrick.
Amazingly, betting lines opened with Tennessee as the underdog in the Fiesta Bowl. It could have been due to Florida State having the experience of being in the National Title picture for most of the 90’s. Perhaps it was that Tennessee would be unveiling a new offensive coordinator for the Fiesta Bowl, as David Cutcliffe left after the SEC Championship Game to become the new head coach of Ole Miss. Randy Sanders, who had been in Knoxville since 1984 as both a player and coach, was promoted to be the new head signal caller. The Volunteers paid no attention to the media and headed into the game preparation the same as they had all year; putting on their hardhats, rolling up their sleeves, and preparing for battle.
After what seemed like an eternity for college football fans, January 4, 1999 finally arrived. A beautiful, cloudless night in Tempe, Arizona welcomed everyone to Sun Devil Stadium. As some people noticed, when the sun went down, an improbable orange moon came out to shine bright in the sky. As a Tennessee fan, you took it as a mighty omen from up above. While the pregame festivities commenced, Coach Phillip Fulmer addressed his Tennessee team in the locker room, stressing that his players didn’t have to play perfect, but insisted they play their tails off.
Tennessee opened the game on their 20-yard line but netted only two yards after three plays. David Leaverton was hit after his punt, bringing out a 15-yard roughing the kicker penalty against Florida State. On first down from the 37, Martin found Price on a long out pattern to give the Vols first down at the Seminoles 42. After a five-yard gain by Travis Henry, Martin reeled off a huge run to the 16-yard line. After three straight runs, Jeff Hall came out but missed his field goal attempt. Neither Florida State nor Tennessee could do much with the ball, and traded punts throughout the first quarter. With just a minute left in the first quarter from the 11-yard line, Martin found Price deep, and Price took it to the Seminoles 12-yard line before being caught from behind, the play covering 77 yards. The Vols could not move the ball further, and after the start of the second quarter, Jeff Hall came out and hit the field goal. However, Florida State was called for roughing, and Tennessee took the penalty for the chance of getting the touchdown. After a trick play in which Henry missed on a pass to the tight end, Martin rolled left and found Shawn Bryson for the touchdown. On their first play after kickoff, Outzen found an open receiver for a 29-yard gain, but on the next play, Dwayne Goodrich made him pay by intercepting Outzen’s attempt to Warrick and returning it 54 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0. Tennessee held Florida State again, but Martin forced a pass and was picked off, giving Florida State the ball inside the 5-yard line. Florida State hammered in for a touchdown. Sebastian Janikowski’s PAT was partially blocked, leaving the score 14-6. On its next possession, Tennessee picked up a quick first down but then was backed up with penalties. Leaverton came in to punt and booted the ball to Warrick, who darted up the middle of the field, looking like he was going to go all the way for a sure touchdown. But there was Leaverton, making the tackle of the game and bringing down Warrick with a hard hit at the 28-yard line. Leaverton’s tackle made a huge difference in the game, as Tennessee held Florida State to a field goal. Tennessee ran out the clock and went into halftime, 14-9.
Word came early in the third quarter that Dwayne Goodrich, who had shadowed Peter Warrick every play and given up only one completion, was ruled out for the second half with an ankle injury. Backup Gerald Griffin would now have to step up. Neither offense could move the ball throughout much of the third quarter until about six minutes left, when Florida State got into Tennessee territory. Tennessee’s defense finally forced a punt, which put the Vols offense inside the 10-yard line. Martin got the offense moving with completions to Wilson, Price, and Copeland before the offense sputtered again. However, they had flipped field position, and Leaverton’s punt at the start of the fourth quarter put the Seminoles at the one-yard line. The Volunteer defense held Florida State to another punt that Eric Parker returned to the 35-yard line. Martin went for the knockout punch, but his pass to Price was intercepted in the end zone, and ran back out to the 26-yard line. After a 15-yard completion, Florida State’s Travis Minor reeled off back-to-back runs to get the Seminoles to the 30, but Darwin Walker put the drive to an end with a third down sack of Outzen. After the punt, the Vols got the ball on the 20. On third down, Martin hit Price down the sideline for the game-clinching 79-yard score. Jeff Hall’s PAT was blocked, and the Vols led 20-9. On the next play, the Tennessee defense hit Outzen and forced a fumble that the Big Orange recovered. Stephens reeled off two big runs to get the Vols to the eight-yard line, but after three runs, the Vols settled for the Jeff Hall field goal to make it 23-9. Florida State moved the ball thanks to several personal foul penalties against the Vols, setting up a huge pass play to the 7-yard line, and Outzen got the touchdown on a scramble. The PAT made it 23-16. Florida State attempted an onside kick that was recovered by Janikowski, but the officials ruled the ball had touched the kicker before he recovered it. This gave Tennessee the ball at the Florida State 40. Three plays netted nine yards, and Tennessee decided to go for the first. On a brilliant call, Martin faked the handoff, rolled out and hit Shawn Bryson, who took the ball all the way to the 11-yard line. The game looked to be over, but on the very next play, Travis Henry fumbled the ball away. On their first play after the turnover, Florida State gave it right back with an Outzen interception by Steve Johnson. Tennessee took the ball and got one last first down to run out the clock. With his last call, John Ward called it best, “The National Champion is clad in Big Orange!”
(Fiesta Bowl Highlights: http://youtu.be/FdcZdP1GvzY )
It was certainly a strange and ugly game, but all that mattered was that Tennessee had come out on top and for the first time since 1951, could call themselves National Champions. Peerless Price was named MVP, with four catches for 199 yards and the game-clinching touchdown. His 199 yards receiving broke school bowl game and Fiesta bowl records.
Volunteer fans hold special places in their heart and minds for certain players and teams; the 1985 SugarVols, the 1989 and 1990 Vols squads, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, and so on. The 1998 Vols will always hold a special spot for how they brought the Championship back to Knoxville. The 1998 National Championship was the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work among young men that came together for the common goal, and yes, they had some luck on the way, but what championship team doesn’t? The Vols were the pride of the state and the point of jealousy among the rest of the nation.
(1998 season highlights, from Decade of Dominance: http://youtu.be/C0lh6zq35RY )
It has been my pleasure to bring you these Orange Memories, looking back through the glory years of the Tennessee Volunteers throughout the 1990’s. With the start of a new season, we hope to create an all-new set of Orange Memories that one day we can look back and say, “Remember when?” I am taking a break for the season, but might get the urge to write something up at some point. Until then, everyone have a great college football season cheering on the Big Orange.