Phillip Fulmer and the Vols earned the national championship in 1998
Here we are in the middle of the college football bowl season having to watch other teams garner postseason glory while the Vols sit at home after a disappointing year on the gridiron. Vol Nation doesn't have a big game to look forward to, so it might be a good idea to look back at previous times in which the Big Orange has brought home some prized hardware.
I use the term "modern era" in this piece because I am going to restrict the time-frame to the bowl games Tennessee has played in during my lifetime (and that of most readers).
So, in my opinion, here are the five biggest bowl game wins the Volunteers have achieved in my 45 years.
Peerless Price was one of the heroes for the Vols against FSU.
Tennessee entered the Fiesta Bowl after having posted a perfect 12-0 regular-season mark in the fall of 1998 while Florida State had dropped only one game during its regular season. It would be a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams to determine an undisputed national champion.
After both teams got off to a relatively slow start, Tennessee QB Tee Martin connected with Shawn Bryson on a short TD pass in the second quarter to put the first points of the night on the board. Then just 25 seconds later, Vols defensive back Dwayne Goodrich intercepted a Marcus Outzen pass and raced 54 yards for another touchdown to give the Big Orange a 14-0 lead.
Florida State fought back with a touchdown of its own later in the second quarter, but a missed extra point left the deficit for the Seminoles at 14-6. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski did hit a field goal for FSU at the end of the first half to cut the Vols lead to 14-9.
After a scoreless third period, Martin hit wide receiver Peerless Price early on in the fourth stanza for a 79-yard TD strike that would prove to be the game's defining moment.
The Seminoles again fought back to make the score 23-16 with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter. A Tennessee fumble opened the door for possible last-minute heroics for FSU, but Vols defensive back Steve Johnson intercepted a pass to seal the victory.
Tennessee went on to be crowned national champions for the first time since 1951.
Tennessee came into this contest as a heavy underdog to No. 2 Miami. The Hurricanes entered the game with somewhat of a chip on their shoulders, believing they should be playing for a national championship rather than going up against the No. 8-ranked team in the country. As a result, the favored team showed little respect to their opponents prior to kickoff.
The Tennessee captains were ignored when they put out their hands for the traditional handshake at the coin toss.
"They just looked the other way," Chris White said.
Running back Jeff Powell snorted, "They were very cocky. I don't think they respected Tennessee. All this week, Coach (Jimmy) Johnson was talking about the Orange Bowl and who's going to win, and that they should be national champions because they beat Oklahoma. They should have paid attention to Tennessee."
On the game's opening drive, it appeared as if Miami would have their way with the Vols. After what looked like a defensive stand, Tennessee gave up 25 yards on a fake punt that put the Hurricanes in position to post the game's first score. Future NFL stars Vinny Testeverde and Michael Irvin connected on an 18-yard TD pass that put the top-ranked team ahead 7-0.
However, it would be all Vols from that point on. The capacity crowd, made up of mostly orange-clad Tennessee fans, frequently disrupted and frustrated the Miami offense while the Vols defense did the rest. That first possession would provide the 'Canes with their only points of the night.
Tennessee put up 14 points in the second quarter to take a lead into the locker room at halftime.
Once the break was over, the rout was on. Powell drove the final nail into Miami's coffin when he broke loose on a 60-yard run in the third period that put the Vols up by a commanding margin of 28-7. In the end, Tennessee won 35-7 and Miami's national championship hopes were dashed.
Although the 1999 Fiesta Bowl brought a national championship to Rocky Top, many Vols fans look back on this game as one of the most satisfying in the school's history due to the lack of respect afforded the team leading up to the event.
The Vols finished up with a 9-1-2 record and a No. 4 national ranking.
The unranked Virginia Cavaliers built a seemingly insurmountable lead as they ran off the field for halftime, up on Tennessee by a score of 16-0. But as no one could have realized at the time, a blocked extra point following Virginia's first touchdown of the night would eventually prove to be the difference-maker as the Vols would stage a huge comeback late in the game.
Tennessee finally got on the board with a Greg Burke field goal in the third quarter but still trailed by a big margin as the final stanza began. However, the Vols would punch three touchdowns into the end zone in the fourth, capped by a one-yard Tony Thompson run to claim a hard-fought 23-22 victory.
QB Andy Kelly led the way in the comeback as he passed for a game total of 273 yards. He would be named as the player of the game for his efforts.
Tennessee ended the season with a record of 9-2-2 and a No. 8 national ranking.
There may not have been a national championship on the line, but Tennessee went into this game looking to complete a great season under first-year head coach Bill Battle. Also, the Vols had lost three consecutive bowl games coming into this matchup and were hoping to finally claim a postseason win.
Tennessee made short work of Air Force as they jumped out to a big lead early by scoring 24 first-quarter points. The Falcons had come into the game with the idea of putting eight defensive players on the line of scrimmage to stop the Vols high-powered running attack. Quarterback Bobby Scott took advantage by completing 22 passes and amassing almost 300 yards through the air.
Air Force's only tally of the first half came when they fell on a Scott fumble in the end zone. The Vols led at the break by a score of 24-7.
Tennessee's Bobby Majors returned a punt 57 yards for another score early in the third quarter. From there, the Vols essentially coasted to a 34-13 victory and their first Sugar Bowl triumph since 1943.
In a strange moment, this game was temporarily halted in the first half when a dog ran onto the field and led pursuers from both teams and stadium security on a chase that lasted for more than ten minutes.
Tennessee ended its season with a record of 11-1 and a No. 4 national ranking.
Peyton Manning led the Vols past Ohio State
The Florida Citrus Bowl may not have necessarily been the Vols' goal going into the 1995 regular season, but the game would provide an entertaining and satisfying end to the season for folks in Big Orange Country.
Ohio State had roared through its first eleven games before being upended by arch-rival Michigan in the final game of the season. Considering that running back Eddie George had been awarded the Heisman Trophy in the weeks prior to the New Year's Day bowl game, the Buckeyes looked to salvage what had been thought of as a season of promise with a win over an SEC opponent. However, it was not to be.
Vols running back Jay Graham rushed for 154 yards, including a 69-yard TD dash late in the first half, and was named MVP of the game. Peyton Manning passed for 182 yards in the win. George, on the other hand, was held to a season-low of 89 yards on the ground.
Going into the fourth quarter, the game was very much in doubt as Ohio State scored to tie the game at 14-14. However, Tennessee kicker Jeff Hall booted two field goals late in the going to secure a 20-14 victory.
In a somewhat odd postgame note, Ohio State coach John Cooper accused Tennessee players of using cleats that were too long according to NCAA rules. No action was ever taken.
Tennessee finished the season with an 11-1 record and was ranked No. 2 nationally.
It will be up to Butch Jones if the Vols are to hoist a trophy at the end of next season.
Those were my choices for Tennessee's five biggest bowl wins during my lifetime. Perhaps you have others selections. Please feel free to comment below regarding my choices and your ideas.
Perhaps next season the Vols will again make their way to a postseason matchup.