Tennessee Volunteers' 1998 National Championship: Part II
Almost over before it started...
On September 5, 1998, playing a high noon season-opening kickoff on ESPN, the No. 10 Tennessee Volunteers traveled north to Syracuse, NY for a meeting with the No. 17 Orangemen.
As mentioned in the previous installment, Vol fans really didn't know what to expect at the outset of the 1998 season. What they got was high drama, and right away.
Tee Martin was making his first start, and the expectation was lots of handoffs to sophomore Jamal Lewis. With Peyton Manning now an NFL rookie, Lewis was the Vols' brightest star and even a darkhorse Heisman candidate at the beginning of the season, simply based upon the number of carries he was likely to receive behind an offensive line returning four starters.
Center Trey Teague was off to the NFL, which required Spencer Riley to move over from guard and fill his position. The rest of the lineup—Chad Clifton and Jarvis Reado at tackle, Cosey Coleman and Mercedes Hamilton at guard—looked to pave the road for Lewis.
As Martin broke himself in, "Give the ball to Jamal" seemed to be the mantra for the '98 offense.
Syracuse was talented—winners of eight straight to close the '97 season before losing in their bowl game—and Donovan McNabb was on his way to becoming a household name. But for Tennessee, despite the questions and the losses surrounding Vol Nation, two factors led to a healthy dose of overconfidence.
One, it had been ten years since the Vols had lost a season opener...if you throw out the 1994 UCLA game, which most Vol fans did in their minds.
That's the day that senior QB Jerry Colquitt, after waiting his entire career behind Heath Shuler, destroyed his knee on the seventh play from scrimmage, and the Vols were left to fend for themselves with a baseball player named Todd Helton, a future Texas A&M transfer named Brandon Stewart, and "one pair of sweaty palms" belonging to Peyton Manning.
The Vols lost that day, but under those circumstances we forgave it, and ultimately, we forgot it. Tennessee losing the season opener is jarring because in our minds it didn't happen, at least not since 1988—which is why Vol fans took the loss at California last season especially hard.
Two, playing a non-conference opponent of Syracuse's caliber was nothing new in Knoxville. Say what you will about some schools, and even some schools in the SEC, but the Vols will travel and they'll travel anywhere.
As Phillip Fulmer enters his 16th season as head coach in 2008, in his tenure Tennessee has played home-and-home series with Notre Dame (twice), Syracuse, Miami, California, and starting this season, UCLA for a second home-and-home duel.
In the next decade, the Vols are contracted to face Oregon, NC State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Ohio State. Tennessee travels.
So the travel wasn't new, and the challenge wasn't either, and playing in the SEC means that no one's home field advantage is really going to overly impress you (though the Carrier Dome, by name, is unique in college football).
All of these factors made Vol fans generally more curious about how the '98 team would look rather than whether or not we would actually win the game.
As season openers usually go, both teams weren't at their best but did a nice job of making up for it in theatrics.
Tee Martin began his UT career by going nine for 26 for 143 yards, but helped ease the tension by making the throws he needed to make—specifically, an early TD pass on the Vols' first drive from 12 yards out to Peerless Price, and another one to Peerless from eight yards away in the fourth quarter.
In between, Martin also ran for 81 yards and a touchdown, and didn't throw any interceptions.
On the other side, Donovan McNabb had a huge day. Syracuse fans will remember some fumbled snaps, perhaps, though it's worth noting that the 'Cuse fumbled five times and only lost two of them.
But what Vol fans remember about the entire '98 season is defense. That Tennessee team had an aggressive, playmaking, dominant, and ultimately legendary defense—just not on this day.
In 1998, the Vol D gave up 17 points to Florida. Nine points at Auburn. Three at Georgia. They gave up only one touchdown to Tim Couch and Kentucky before the backups came in for the final few minutes and gave up two garbage TDs.
They shut out Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game, as the Bulldogs scored on a punt return and an interception return. And in the BCS National Championship, they gave up only 16 points to Florida State.
These same guys gave up 33 points in the Carrier Dome, and let McNabb make an even bigger name for himself.
En route to Syracuse picking up 445 yards of offense, McNabb was cool, calm, and collected, completing 22 of 28 for exactly 300 yards. The Vols sacked him three times and hit him a bunch...but McNabb never let it disrupt him.
It was truly a great performance against what would become a great defense by a quarterback on his way to a greatness reserved only for those in Campbell's Chunky Soup commercials.
The Vols led 14-10 at halftime, with those of us in orange still assuming everything was in hand—because as we mentioned in Part I, Tennessee had been beating everyone but Florida in the regular season for the last three years, so we always just assumed.
When Syracuse cut it to 14-13, the Vols used more Jamal Lewis (141 yards on just 20 carries) to score again and then added a field goal off a turnover, and when the lead was 24-13 heading to the fourth quarter, we all felt pretty safe.
The final fifteen minutes of this game became an emotional roller coaster for all involved. It currently ranks as one of the Top 100 Finishes (since 1970) on collegefootballnews.com's list, and with good reason.
Less than six minutes into the fourth quarter, Syracuse scored, got the ball back, and then scored again. All of a sudden, the Orangemen had their first lead at 27-24—and now, Vol fans were sweating.
All of the assumptions faded away, and you realized you needed a come-from -behind victory in a hostile environment with a green, 9-for-26 quarterback.
But again, Martin made the plays he needed to make. He led the Vols on a six-play, 80-yard drive, highlighted by his 55-yard scramble on 3rd-and-10.
This is one of an infinite number of instances where Tennessee radio play-by-play man John Ward, in his final season, brought the magic. He saw the play open up and voiced, as if from on high directly to the young quarterback: "Run with that football."
Martin, on cue, took off. 55 yards later, we were sweating a little less.
The drive culminated with Peerless Price's second TD catch of the day, and the Vols were back on top 31-27 with still 8:30 to play.
From here, it probably gets a little painful for the Syracuse faithful.
The Orangemen had a first down at Tennessee's 24-yard line, but could get no closer and settled for a field goal to make it 31-30. Then Tee Martin made his only really big mistake of the day with a fumble that Syracuse recovered at their own 41-yard line with still more than five minutes to play.
They drove all the way to the two-yard line, ate three minutes off the clock...and still couldn't reach the end zone. Another chip shot field goal gave the Orangemen the lead, 33-31, but meant the Vols could retake the lead with a field goal of their own.
The play most people remember from this game is a fourth down on the ensuing drive, where Martin's pass falls incomplete and there's about a full second before a penalty flag comes flying in for pass interference.
Before we talk about whether or not it was the right call—which, of course, depends on which shade of orange you were wearing at the time—for Tennessee, this would be the first in a series of moments where it all could've come crashing down in 1998. 13-0 could've been 0-1 very easily.
During that full second between the ball hitting the turf and that yellow flag flying into the television frame, Vol fans had a moment of realization—that Peyton wasn't here to save us, that we were going to start the season 0-1, and as much as one can realize this in a full second, that our program was entering a new era, and it wasn't an overly positive one.
But the penalty flag put all that on hold. Now...technically, I believe the call was correct. The Syracuse defender makes contact with the Tennessee receiver a split second before the ball gets there.
Technically, it was pass interference. But where I sympathize completely is that, more often than not, a referee will hold his flag on such a bang-bang play.
The penalty was called, the drive continued, and the season that would later become defined by the term had its first brush with destiny.
The game wasn't over. Tennessee still needed to get the ball upfield to set up a field goal. But again, Tee Martin made the plays he needed to make, directing the Vols all the way down to the 10-yard line and milking the clock, setting up senior Jeff Hall from 27 yards to win the game.
Hall, being a fourth year starter, had earned our respect in Knoxville. He nailed a game-winner as a true freshman in his second game against Georgia in 1995, and we didn't question him again.
27 yards, to us, was a foregone conclusion. And Hall didn't disappoint—he split the uprights, and John Ward told us, "Tennessee wins."
It wasn't an exclamation, it was an emphatic statement: new players, on the road, tough circumstances, and yes, a fortuitous flag...but the Vols still got it done.
The Vols still found a way, and all of our assumptions and beliefs about this team and this program were still true, at least for one more week—that the Vols could and would beat anybody that wasn't Florida, no matter what.
Tennessee 34, Syracuse 33.
Despite the high drama and classic finish, Syracuse left the field downtrodden, I'm sure...but they didn't let it slow them down long. The very next week, they pounded Michigan 38-28 in Ann Arbor, en route to a Big East Championship and a spot in the BCS.
The Vols, meanwhile, would take their customary week off following the opener, before having to face all those questions again...because the next one wasn't anybody that wasn't.
The Gators were coming in two weeks.
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