Tennessee Volunteers' 1998 National Championship: Part III

Will SheltonSenior Analyst IJune 27, 2008

(Updated from an original feature on The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005 from SouthEastern Sports Blog, December 14, 2006)

"The kick is up, and the kick is...no-sir-ree.  No-sir-ree.  Final score:  Tennessee 20...Florida...17.  Pandemonium reigns." - John Ward

Burned into my memory, verbatim, is this line from the 1998 Sporting News preseason college football magazine: "Not even the most diehard Vol fan thinks they have a shot against Florida this year."

The week one win at Syracuse taught us a few things, but the cold reality in the third week of September 1998 was we didn't know that Donovan McNabb would grow up to be Donovan McNabb, we didn't know Syracuse was that good, and we'd seen our defense give up 33 points and miss a world of tackles.

Tee Martin had a below-average start statistically speaking, no No. 2 wide receiver emerged, and there was little that made you look at this team and think any differently about their odds against the Gators. 

What really reinforced that idea wasn't so much Tennessee's problems, but Florida's talent.

On offense, the Gators suited up Terry Jackson at RB and a usual stable of future NFL-draftee wide receivers, including Travis McGriff, Travis Taylor, and Darrell Jackson, with Erron Kinney at tight end.  Zach Piller led the offensive line.

Coming into the game, the questions with the Gator offense surrounded who would play QB: Doug Johnson or Jesse Palmer?

But the brutal strength of this Florida team was the defense.

In a conversation about the best defenses that Tennessee has faced in the last twenty years, you always start with '92 Alabama, and you can certainly make a case for '96 Alabama, '97 Nebraska, and '02 Miami.

But outside of the '92 National Champions in Tuscaloosa, this Florida defense gets my money.

The Gators featured Reggie McGrew at defensive tackle and Tony George in the secondary, but the real five-star unit is at linebacker, where Mike Peterson and Jevon Kearse (moved to DE by the Titans) lined up with Johnny Rutledge—all three were drafted in the first or second round the following April.

Florida was big, fast, and playing an inexperienced Vol offense.  This was trouble.

So here come 100,000 people into Neyland Stadium for the good ol' 8 p.m. kickoff on CBS.  And you've seen things go wrong against these guys so many times, and you don't have a whole ton of faith in this Tennessee team at this point anyway, and everyone says it's going to go south...so you're just trying to hang on when this thing starts.

The Legend of Al Wilson is written on this night.  You've never, ever seen a defensive player take over a game like this in Knoxville.  In the first half, Wilson simply willed the Vols.  It started when Florida drove to the one-yard line in a scoreless game, and you're thinking, "Well, here we go again."

Then Wilson forced a fumble that the Vols recovered in the end zone.

The Gators would move to first and goal again, and this time came away with only three points.  Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer weren't just rotating every series, they were rotating every play.  He'll never admit it, but I think Spurrier might regret that.

Florida had a 3-0 lead and the Vol offense wasn't getting anything done.  Then Shawn Bryson took a handoff at the Vol 43-yard line, and suddenly the middle of the defense came wide open because they weren't expecting the fullback.  Bryson turned on the speed for a 57-yard touchdown, and the Vols had the lead.

Tennessee had the lead on Florida—which hadn't happened in three years.  It hadn't happened at Neyland Stadium in six years.  And when Bryson scored, I remember thinking, "This isn't the way this usually goes..."

Al Wilson kept hitting.  He forced his third fumble of the night that the Vols recovered only 35 yards away, and things kept going right.  Tennessee got three points out of that drive and led 10-3.

As close as this game was, and as lucky as many say the Vols were to win it, it could've been more decisive in our favor when you really go back and look at it.  Florida drove 67 yards in 3:10 with no timeouts on their final drive of the first half—including a 3rd-and-22 conversion—and threw a touchdown pass with 20 seconds left to tie the game 10-10 at halftime.

As the third quarter progressed, you saw another Florida fumble that led to no points.  Midway through the third with the game still tied at 10-10, you had to wonder, with the Vols having forced four turnovers but only scoring 10 points off them, if we had wasted our best chances.

But punter David Leaverton pinned the Gators at their own four-yard line.  Florida couldn't drive, punted and then committed an oft-forgotten but highly crucial personal foul penalty on the return.  The result: Tennessee had 1st-and-10 on the Florida 28.

The drive actually went backward one yard before Tee Martin made his one and only big throw of the night, hanging a ball up in the corner between Peerless Price and two defenders.  Price made a tremendous adjustment on the ball, caught it and held on through the hit for a touchdown.

This is one of those plays where all the fans in orange are thinking, "This isn't going to work, he shouldn't have thrown that...wait, YES!"

Tennessee hadn't held a lead on Florida this late in the game in six years.  17-10 Vols, still seven and change left in the third quarter.

More evidence that the Vols could've won by more: they had Florida on 3rd-and-11 at their own 30 on the ensuing drive.  The result—Travis McGriff busted Dwayne Goodrich for 70 yards, and in an instant we're tied again.

There's some great trash talking between McGriff and Goodrich if you can find the tape, and while Goodrich would mature throughout the year and go on to help shut down Peter Warrick, McGriff got the best of him to the tune of nine catches for 176 yards.

Tennessee's offense simply couldn't move.  The Gator defense had given up two plays, one to Bryson and one to Price, but would budge no further.  Sometimes I'll see this game mentioned as "one of the most well-played games in Tennessee history," and that's simply not true.

If you go back and watch the tape, essentially you're watching for those two plays on offense, and every other time Tennessee has the ball is borderline unwatchable.  Tennessee simply couldn't get anything done on offense all night long. 

As the clock ran into the fourth quarter, the Vol faithful were waiting for one more of those big plays, just one more—but the offense could never provide it.  Tee Martin finished seven of 20 passing for just 64 yards.  Jamal Lewis ran for an extremely tough 82 yards.

But when the offense couldn't get any more points on the board, the Vol defense continued to carry the team.  On the night, they held Florida to -13 rushing yards and sacked Johnson and Palmer five times.  They had already forced four fumbles.

As the game wore on, the Vol nation began to build the faith they would place on this defense for the remainder of the season.

Florida would make one final push towards the end zone, but Deon Grant made one of the most spectacular interceptions you'll ever see.  When the ball was fired deep across the middle, the guy sitting next to me said, "Intercepted!"  I remember thinking, "Are you blind?!  There's no way he'll get to that one..."

But Deon Grant played centerfield well, timed his leap, and saved the game with one hand, snatching the fifth turnover of the night and sending the game toward overtime.

We'd never played the high stakes game of overtime before, and we were already pretty thrilled just to be there with these guys.  When the Vols lost the toss, got the ball first, and then committed a holding penalty, you still just had to scratch your head.

But while Tee Martin wasn't hot on this night, he made a big play in scrambling on third down and getting those ten yards back, giving Jeff Hall a 41-yard field goal instead of a 51-yarder.  Hall stepped up and knocked it through, and the Vols led 20-17.

There is no more tense situation in sports than a college football overtime after the team with the first offensive possession kicked a field goal.  The game can end on the very next snap, with a touchdown for the offense or a turnover for a defense.

On their first offensive play, Florida got 10 yards and a first down at the 15-yard line.  I remember thinking, "We've played so hard, come so close, and left so much out there, and now it's going to end and come up short, because there's no way we keep Florida out of the end zone from the 15-yard line and a first down."

The definitive Al Wilson play wasn't any of the forced fumbles or anything from any of the other 1998 games.  It was 2nd-and-10 from the 15 in this overtime.

Before the snap, Wilson is showing blitz but he's not showing where, and there's a camera shot of this from behind Jesse Palmer that shows what he saw: Wilson roaming around the defensive line like a maniac, showing blitz from three different angles before the snap.

When Palmer takes it, he gets a three-step drop and then has to get rid of it because Wilson is all over him.  Suddenly it's 3rd and 10, and you're one stop away from forcing a field goal.

When the Gators threw behind a moderately open man in the end zone on third down, the Vol D had held again.

So here comes Collins "we don't put kickers on scholarship at the University of Florida" Cooper, and it's only 32 yards.

32 yards.  I never, ever thought about him missing it.  My exact words were "Watch the fake, please God don't rough the kicker."  Like lots of those in orange, I'm trying to figure out how our offense is going to score any points as the potential overtimes play on, because our defense has got to be dead and you can't ask much more from them.

My season tickets are in Z11, which is the opposite end of the stadium from where the ball was kicked.  What I learned on that night is that when they're kicking field goals on the other end and you can't see clearly, you always watch the fans right behind the goalpost—they'll tell you first.  The first time I saw it was on this night.

When Cooper's kick went up and drifted left, from our perspective it was, "Well, maybe..." and then you see the section of Vol fans directly behind and to the left of the goalposts start going nuts.

There was that half-second moment where everyone in the stadium took a breath, one big inhale before letting out more noise than I've ever heard in my entire life.

I remember saying, "He missed it!" and then being conscious of not being able to hear the words come out of my mouth.

I said it again and didn't hear it again.

It was raw, pure jubiliation, the type of totally unrestrained celebration that you just don't see this side of heaven.  And after a few seconds of that, with everyone I know and some people I don't grabbing me and each other and girls I don't even know coming up and kissing me and everyone else, it sank in: We won. We won.

We beat Florida.

There was this moment of "Let's get the goalposts!"  My seats are 48 rows up in Z11, and after thinking about it and getting one foot in the aisle, those things were already down.  "Well, okay, they'll get the goalposts I guess."

But it might've been more fun standing there, watching the Gator fans walk back up between us, in a mass of people mocking the Gator Chomp ("My arms are tired, but keep chomping—I have no idea when we'll get to do this again" - my Dad) and screaming with venom and fury, "Citrus Bowl!  Citrus Bowl!" at the Gator fans.

Florida, as it turns out, would get a BCS at-large bid and play in the Orange Bowl.  But the Vols would still do them one better...