To understand what happened in Knoxville in 1998, you have to remember both what we'd gained and what we'd lost.
The modern era of Tennessee Football, as I like to call it, started in 1989. The genesis of the Vols' current status as an elite program can be found in Pasadena, California, on a late September night, when a team that had gone 5-6 in 1988 went out to No. 6 UCLA and came back with a 24-6 win.
The Vols would go on to capture a share of the SEC Championship in 1989 before winning it outright in 1990, and the run was on.
Five years and a new head coach and defensive coordinator later, a sophomore named Peyton Manning came under center for his first full season as the starting quarterback.
For the next three years, the Vols were great—11-1 and ranked No. 2 in the coaches' poll in 1995, 10-2 in 1996, and an 11-1 SEC Champion in 1997 with an outside shot at the National Championship before getting blasted by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
That run of three years made Manning a legend and helped the Vols reach new heights...
...but the heights weren't quite as high as we wanted to go.
Outside of 1996 and a fluke loss to Memphis, all you see are ones in the regular season loss column up there. And each of those three seasons, the one was the same—the Florida Gators.
What Steve Spurrier and the Gators did in the mid-'90s is impressive beyond description—four straight SEC Championships, winning it all in 1996, and putting their stamp of ownership on the toughest conference in college football.
Florida's greatness, combined with Tennessee's inability to beat them, really made the nation at large overlook how good Tennessee was during that same time period.
Under Phillip Fulmer and Peyton Manning, the Vols scratched a 10-year Alabama itch in 1995, the first of seven straight wins over the Crimson Tide—a streak that no other school can claim and one that changed the entire landscape of the Vols' most bitter rivalry.
But under the new divisional format, the Vols' most important rivalry had become Florida, and just when the Alabama series got better, the Florida series got worse.
The Vols beat 'Bama, kept unloading on the rest of the SEC, beat Eddie George and No. 4 Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl following the 1995 season, then blew out co-Big 10 Champion Northwestern in the same bowl the following season. Peyton Manning racked up legendary numbers to stake his claim as one of the best SEC quarterbacks of all time.
Tennessee was beating everybody...except Florida.
The most impressive statistic in this era that I know of is this: between an October 1994 loss to Alabama, and a November 1999 loss at Arkansas, the Vols went 1-4 against Florida.
They went 37-0 against the rest of the SEC.
That's stunning. Dominance on an incredible, unheard-of level.
...except it wasn't. Because Florida was still one step ahead.
The Vols were outscored by the Gators in 1993 and incredibly overwhelmed on paper and in result in 1994. But when sophomore Peyton Manning went to The Swamp in 1995, the Vols felt like they were right there with Florida.
And for one half, they were more than that—the Vols led the Gators 30-14 late in the second quarter that year. And from there, we knew only heartbreak.
Florida outscored the Vols by an uncanny 48-7 mark from that point on to win that day 62-37, then opened the 1996 game with a 35-0 lead to continue the torture. Even when Peyton decided to stay at the University of Tennessee, the Vols found themselves on the receiving end of a 33-20 loss that wasn't really that close in 1997.
Florida wasn't just beating Tennessee—they were making it look easy and breaking our spirit along the way. And Tennessee was beating everybody else, and had nothing to show for it. It was tangible depression in Big Orange Country.
The saying goes that around Knoxville, there are only two questions one asks on the Third Sunday in September: "Can we go all the way?" or "Will Florida lose twice?"
Since for five straight years we could only ask the second one from 1993-1997, the answer kept being "no," and Florida kept playing in Atlanta, while the Vols kept playing in Orlando.
But finally...finally...in October of 1997, with the senior Manning somewhat downtrodden and the business-as-usual Vols tearing up everyone else behind the running of super freshman Jamal Lewis...finally, the Vols broke through. Not because they were good enough to beat Florida...but because finally, someone else was.
In 1995 and 1996, the Vols lost to Florida in September, then beat everyone else in the SEC and had to hope the Gators lost twice along the way. And in 1995 and 1996, Florida ran roughshod over the conference. They didn't even lose once to give us false hope—they went 8-0 both years. It was like the Gators weren't even giving us a chance.
So when they won again in 1997, we just assumed it'd be three straight Januaries in Orlando.
But then, the No. 1 Gators went into Tiger Stadium in October, and somehow, someway, somebody found a way to beat them. It was the first SEC loss for Florida since 1994, but the Tigers got it done 28-21. And suddenly, there was hope in Knoxville.
The Vols needed one more, and they'd have to wait—Auburn couldn't get it done the following week against the Gators.
But then, against the one team who could sympathize with the Vols' Florida struggles more than anyone, the Gators stubbed their toe again—in the Cocktail Party, against a Georgia team the Vols had toyed with weeks earlier, and most UT fans gave no second thoughts about.
Georgia unleashed the fury, 37-17. And all of a sudden...the Vols were in the driver's seat.
Peyton Manning and Tennessee maintained that position, closing out Vanderbilt in narrow fashion to clinch their first SEC East Division Championship. And I will still contest to this very day that the best environment I've ever been in for any sporting event was the 1997 SEC Championship between Tennessee and Auburn.
Two old rivals who hadn't played under the new divisional format in six years, two storied programs both making their first trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship, and the Vols at No. 3 and still holding an outside shot at winning it all. It's the only neutral site game I've ever been to where the crowd was truly 50-50.
The Vols didn't play perfectly by any means, but they played well enough to win 30-29, capturing their first SEC Championship since 1990 and getting Peyton Manning his ring.
Even though Tennessee hadn't beaten Florida, they had the rings. And I think mentally, that changed some of the landscape. The Vols, not the Gators, would be entering the 1998 season as the defending SEC Champions. That gave Tennessee confidence, and that confidence made a difference.
That was what we'd gained. From there, the Vols did some losing.
First, Peyton Manning lost the Heisman Trophy. Then, No. 1 Michigan held off Washington State in the Rose Bowl, eliminating Tennessee's chances to win the National Championship if they had beaten No. 2 Nebraska.
Then, Nebraska did some beating of their own.
The Cornhuskers put their evil inside the Vols to the tune of 42-17. Witnessing the loss of a great Tennessee team and a great Tennessee player like Manning, beaten down in the twilight of the season and his career, was incredibly disheartening even without the National Championship on the line. The Vols got physically whipped in a way that I haven't seen before or since.
But from that ashes of that Orange Bowl loss came lessons. Get stronger. Get tougher. Get meaner. Every time one of my teams takes a real beating, I always think back to this game. Because the next year, it turned into the best thing that ever happened to Tennessee Football.
The rest of what made 1998 so special is that you never saw it coming.
Despite the confidence and the rings, the Nebraska beatdown put a swift and sudden end to the Manning Era. And he wasn't the only one who was leaving.
The Vols lost Manning, WR Marcus Nash, DEs Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown, and DB Terry Fair to the NFL. Names who had been mainstays in the Vol attack for several years were now gone, and their replacements were far from sure things. Manning's name was the biggest and brightest, but the losses on the whole on both sides of the ball left doubt.
The assumption, in Knoxville and everywhere, was that Tennessee had its chance with Manning, won one SEC title after backdooring their way into Atlanta, and now it was back to the pack while Florida continued to assert itself. And on paper, it was hard to argue.
You knew about Jamal Lewis, but with Tee Martin having never started a game and no proven No. 1 receiver, there were questions about the offense. And outside of a linebacking corps that would ultimately live up to its billing, the defense was packed with even bigger issues.
10 years ago in late June, we didn't know what we were going to see when the Vols hit the field in September, but we knew it would be something new.
And something new is exactly what we got.
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