Shutting the Door on the East Division
The good vibes the Vols were feeling after beating Florida carried over for one game and one quarter.
After sweating it out for sixty minutes at Syracuse and for sixty-plus against Florida in their first two games, the Vols got a breather with Houston and won 42-7.
The following week, Tennessee went to Auburn for the first time since 1990 to face a Tiger squad that had been decimated by graduation losses and was not at all the same team Tennessee had seen the December before in the SEC Championship Game.
In the first quarter of that game, the Vols looked every ounce of the National Championship contender their fans believed they were. To reiterate the point from previous posts in this series, since the Vols at this point had beaten every SEC opponent they'd faced except Florida since October 1994, once the Vols finally beat Florida, the fan mindset became "we're going to win it all."
There was no one else on the schedule we feared, and having already beaten Syracuse there was no major non-conference date left. The vast majority of Vol fans were making reservations for Atlanta in December and Tempe in January from the moment Collins Cooper's kick sailed wide left two weeks earlier.
The first quarter of the Auburn game was an opportunity for the nation at large to join us. The Tigers drove downfield on their first possession before a vicious hit on the quarterback forced a fumble that DE Shaun Ellis picked up and raced back 90-plus yards for a touchdown.
When the Vols finally got the ball on their first possession, Jamal Lewis ripped off a 67-yard touchdown run. When the dust had cleared and the first quarter ended, the Vols were up 17-0, and it seemed like the rout was on.
Then, on an innocent-looking play, everything changed.
Jamal Lewis limped off the field after trying to make a cut. The play didn't look serious enough to be a long-lasting injury, and when he was out of action for the second half, Vol fans assumed it was a knee sprain or something minor, and he'd be back.
So as the Vol offense limped forward without him—17 points in the first quarter, zero the rest of the day—the Vol defense stepped up, sans Al Wilson, who was also injured. They forced a goal-line stand and held Auburn to three field goals in a 17-9 win.
But the news in the coming days was devastating: Jamal Lewis had torn his ACL and was done for the season.
All of a sudden, the aura of invincibility had been seriously shaken.
The Vols were 4-0 and ranked No. 4, but with seven games left and a quarterback who was still learning, the blind optimism that was floating around Knoxville quickly turned south.
The alternatives to Lewis were untested—sophomores Travis Henry and Travis Stephens. Vol fans had been accustomed to greatness at the RB position for a decade—Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb, Tony Thompson, James Stewart, Aaron Hayden, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham, and then Lewis.
The recruiting pedigree was good, but Jamal was such a unique and fierce runner, and such a vital part of the offense...confidence was not high.
And the next opponent made it worse.
Down in Athens, the Bulldogs were undefeated and ranked No. 7. The week before, they'd gone to Baton Rouge to face No. 6 LSU with a freshman quarterback named Quincy Carter.
Carter turned in a sensational performance—27 of 34 for 318 yards and two TDs, and another 41 yards on the ground—in a 28-27 Bulldog victory.
Between Carter and Champ Bailey, who was being hailed as the second coming of Charles Woodson (don't get me started), and with LSU going down and Tennessee and Florida looking less than impressive, Georgia was the hot team in the league that all the experts fell in love with following their performance on the Bayou.
So the Vols took their questions to Athens, in search of answers and the next step towards a championship. But when it came to facing Tennessee, Georgia always had some questions of their own.
At this point, Tennessee had beaten Georgia seven times in a row. Much like the Tennessee-Florida rivalry until 1998, the Vols seemed to take Georgia's best teams and turn them into lunch meat.
1998 was the second of three consecutive years that Georgia came into to the Tennessee game undefeated and left on the losing end by at least three possessions.
While Florida was everyone's burden throughout the '90s, Georgia had actually beaten them the year before. When Tennessee did the same in September, everything fell to this date in Athens: all of Georgia's angst and frustration against Tennessee's quest for glory, with the winner staying undefeated, firmly entrenched as the best team in the SEC, and boasting a legitimate claim as one of the best teams in the nation.
This became the game that made not just Vol fans, but the nation, believe that Tennessee was for real and good enough on both sides of the ball to be taken seriously as a National Championship contender.
The first half was marred with mistakes, turnovers, and field goals. Jeff Hall and the Vols outkicked Georgia three to one for a 9-3 lead at the break. But while Tee Martin was having his struggles early, Quincy Carter never got even remotely close to comfortable.
Without Lewis to pace the offense, the Vol defense took up the mantle starting on this afternoon, one they would carry for the rest of the season.
Carter was consistently hit and hurried, and Georgia couldn't put anything together. Carter finished the day 14 of 37 passing, and Georgia only ran for 59 yards. Vol corner Dwayne Goodrich, beaten by Travis McGriff a few weeks ago, shut down Champ Bailey.
A defense so questioned at Syracuse a few weeks earlier was now shutting down the hottest team in the country. In the process, they forced four turnovers, including a Deon Grant interception late to help seal it.
And the Vol offense?
The biggest sequence in the game and arguably the season was right away in the third quarter. The Vols held a narrow 9-3 lead in an ugly game but then produced the game's first touchdown, Tee Martin finding Cedrick Wilson on a short touchdown pass and beating Bailey on the play.
Suddenly the Vols were up 15-3, and a two-possession gap seemed even larger the way the defense was playing.
While Tee Martin was becoming more comfortable in command of the offense, Travis & Travis were doing their part to erase the doubts and fears of the Vol Nation. Travis Stephens got the first crack and responded with 107 yards. Travis Henry was his backup and turned in 53 yards of his own (before eventually winning the starting role in the weeks to come).
They showed they could be more than relied upon, and that this offense—even without Jamal Lewis—when combined with this defense, could in fact carry this team to victory. Against a good opponent. On their home field. And by a more than comfortable margin.
With all the questions and doubts put to bed, Tennessee didn't just squeak by or escape Athens on this day—they dominated the Bulldogs, a performance the likes of which championship teams are made of.
By the time Tee Martin connected with Peerless Price late in the third quarter, the Vols were up 22-3 and the game was effectively over. Quincy Carter couldn't pull it off by himself and couldn't lead any sort of comeback.
What's really interesting about Carter is that you can argue the greatest performance of his Georgia career was that first notable one—as a freshman at LSU in the first week of October of his freshman season. It never really got any better than that for him.
The Vols, meanwhile, went on to win by that margin and effectively shut the door on the SEC East. Having beaten Florida and Georgia, Tennessee was very much in the driver's seat, and demanded the respect and attention of the nation.
While No. 1 Ohio State continued to be viewed by all as the best team in the nation at this point, the Vols had proven that they belonged in the conversation.
Having beaten Syracuse, Florida, and now Georgia—and with fresh faith in the defense, Tee Martin, and the Travis duo—the Vols went to a bye week and looked toward the second half of the season with not just false optimism, but real proof.
This Tennessee team had what it took. After Georgia, we all knew: The Vols could really do it. The Vols could beat anyone, anywhere—and in this case, make it look easy.
The Vols could go all the way.