Tennessee Volunteers' 1998 National Championship, Part VI

Will SheltonSenior Analyst IJuly 9, 2008

Is it fact or myth that you need a great quarterback to win a championship?

While the recent trend in the NFL would suggest otherwise—where 13 of the last 16 Super Bowls have been won by guys named Aikman, Young, Favre, Elway, Warner, Brady, and Manning—in college football, six of the first 10 BCS National Championships went to teams with Tee Martin, Josh Heupel, Craig Krenzel, Matt Mauck, Chris Leak, and Matt Flynn under center.

For every Matt Leinart and Vince Young you find guys like Krenzel, the molecular genetics major who completed a third of his passes in the title game but still found a way for the Buckeyes in ’02.

Or Heupel, who was a relative unknown on the national level going into the 2000 season and then exploded into a Heisman runner-up while leading the Sooners to the promised land.

At the beginning of the BCS era, we find the most famous and arguably most relevant argument against the necessity of an elite quarterback: where Peyton Manning couldn’t, Tee Martin made it happen.

Martin, an Alabama native who spurned Auburn for the Vols in the recruiting process, probably thought he’d get his chance a year earlier, in 1997.  Instead, Manning decided to stay in Knoxville for his senior season, and Martin stayed in obscurity another year.

When Peyton graduated as an SEC Champion who couldn’t beat Florida and couldn’t win it all, Martin inherited an offense that had also lost its top wide receiver to the first round of the NFL Draft as well as several defensive playmakers.  And with his only real game experience coming in blowouts, there were questions for sure.

Martin wasn’t just following Manning, who left as the all-time leader in every Tennessee passing category as well as the owner of multiple SEC records. 

Before Manning was Heath Shuler, who had been the trigger man on the highest scoring offense in Vol history in 1993, a Heisman runner-up like Manning, and the third pick in the NFL Draft.

Before Shuler was Andy Kelly, who won back-to-back SEC Championships in 1989 and 1990, and went 29-6-2 in his three years as a starter. 

You could argue that Martin was following the three greatest quarterbacks in Tennessee history.  It wasn’t just the looming shadow of Manning.  It was the larger shadow of quarterback greatness the Vols had enjoyed since 1989.

Thirteen games later, and Martin had some accolades of his own.

What Kelly, Shuler, Manning, and all Tennessee Vols had failed to deliver since 1951, Martin brought home: a National Championship.  Still, he would probably be the first to tell you he didn’t do it alone. 

Do you need an elite quarterback to win it all in major college football?  Not really.

While Martin was never truly elite, he did have his moments.  At South Carolina in 1998, Martin broke the NCAA record for consecutive completions, connecting on his first 23 passes.  The following season he would be named first team All-SEC.

But when surrounded by other talent—in this case, a spectacular defense, a great offensive line, a stable of talented running backs, and a Peerless playmaker—Tee Martin is a perfect example of a quarterback not needing to be a Heisman candidate, not needing throw for 3,000 yards to lead his team to ultimate victory.

Instead of superstardom and stats, Martin was a master of simple basics: don’t make mistakes, make the plays you have to make, and win games.  Tee Martin proved that you don’t have to be great, you just have to be good enough to make the right plays at the right times.

The 1998 Tee Martin highlight reel in games against ranked opponents goes like this:

•a 55-yard scramble on 3rd-and-10 in the fourth quarter at Syracuse

•a teardrop pass for a touchdown at the end of the first half against Arkansas

•two icy throws on consecutive offensive plays for touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game

•two bombs to Peerless Price in the Fiesta Bowl

That’s it.  That’s all.  The rest of the ’98 highlight reel in big games is a whole bunch of Martin handing it off, and Martin not throwing interceptions.

He threw six interceptions in 1998, the best season for any Vol quarterback who's not Peyton Manning.  He padded his stats against lesser opponents.  But he never, ever let the Vols be beaten or even really made a bad decision that gave them a chance of being beaten. 

And when the moment demanded, Martin delivered.  And Tennessee won it all.

This year lots of fans are putting their faith in elite guys like Tebow and Stafford, Chase Daniel and Pat White.  There are fans of schools like Texas Tech who are rolling the dice on 50 passes per game. 

But there are also fans who are nervous about their guy under center, and whether or not he has what it takes to lead them all the way.  And yeah—sometimes you get a Vince Young along the way.  But more often than not it’s been the lesser guys, the ones who aren’t household names, who are more leaders and winners than Heisman candidates. 

So who knows…maybe there’s another Craig Krenzel out there this season.  Maybe there’s a guy waiting to bust loose like Josh Heupel.  And maybe your team just lost a great one, but there’s something else pretty good waiting in the wings.

Even if you’re trying to figure it out between Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor in Blacksburg, or out in Eugene and trying to figure out how you replace Dennis Dixon, or down in the SEC with new faces like Kodi Burns, Jonathan Crompton and a player to be named later at LSU…you never know.

Two months before the season in 1998, the Vols didn’t know.  You never know until you see it on the field.  And what you see out there doesn’t have to be the Heisman.

Whoever your quarterback, history shows he doesn’t have to be great.  He just has to be good enough at the right times.  And if names like Krenzel, Mauck, Flynn, and Tee Martin can get it done, maybe your guy can, too.


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