(Note: This piece is edited down from a much longer original feature on The 50 Best Vol Games at SouthEastern Sports Blog from December 19, 2006)
We’ve followed the story of the ’98 Vols, from the program’s move to the doorstep during the Peyton Manning Era, and how Tee Martin took the wheel and led the Vols to wins against Syracuse, Florida, Georgia, a miracle against Arkansas, and a second straight SEC Championship against Mississippi State.
So the story moved to the desert, where the Vols went looking for the final win to secure their first National Championship since 1951. After Upset Saturday took out Kansas State and UCLA, a much more imposing threat arose to punch the other half of the ticket.
Florida State had lost back in September, 24-7, to NC State in a game that was frankly jarring to watch—in 1998 you weren’t used to seeing FSU get beat that way.
But the Noles stayed the course and wouldn’t lose again. They used a defense as equally fearsome as the Vols’ and got the same fortunate bounces against the Gators to set up the championship matchup. For Florida State, it was just the latest edition of their program playing for it all.
For Tennessee, the brightest lights and the biggest stage were both a new experience.
Out in Tempe, you could tell the difference just by the fan bases.
After an 11-hour delay at a Louisville, KY airport (because all the flights from Knoxville were booked), my Dad and I arrived in Phoenix in the wee hours of the morning the day of the game.
In the hours before kickoff, our interactions with FSU fans produced what I would call “unintentionally condescending” conversations: several conversations where Nole faithful told us some form of, “You’ve had a great season, congratulations for making it this far.”
Again, they’d been here before. It was all new to us.
Early in the contest, it showed. While Florida State did what they do, with three 15-yard penalties in the first quarter, the Vols did what they usually didn’t in 1998: Jeff Hall missed a short field goal, and Travis Henry fumbled on Tennessee’s first two possessions.
With both teams killing themselves in a scoreless first, Peerless Price made the game’s first big play, hauling in a bomb from Tee Martin to put the Vols in position. When the Noles committed their fourth 15-yard penalty by roughing Hall on a field goal attempt, the Vols took the points off the board and added a touchdown on a dump to Shawn Bryson.
Much had been made of both Peter Warrick and Marcus Outzen, the third string FSU quarterback who was thrust into action. The combination of those two things was bad news for the Noles on the ensuing possession—Outzen tried to force it to Warrick, and Dwayne Goodrich stepped in front and raced back for a pick six.
Suddenly, the six-point underdog Vols were up 14-0 in the second quarter.
Warrick would finish the night with all of one catch.
The Vols had a chance to get more, but Tee Martin was intercepted, setting up Florida State’s first touchdown. After a botched extra point, the Noles would add a field goal to make it 14-9 Vols at the break.
After a third quarter where almost nothing happened, Vol fans who’d learned to put their faith in the defense once again found themselves just hoping to hang on as the game went to the final period.
The Vols had been winning the field position battle, and Tee Martin tried to take advantage of a short field early in the fourth quarter, but he was intercepted in the end zone. From there, Florida State marched to 1st-and-10 at the Tennessee 26-yard line with 13 minutes left in the game.
After two runs for minimal gain and a crucial false start penalty, Vol DT Darwin Walker turned a potentially long field goal into a punt situation by sacking Outzen. FSU had 1st-and-10 at the 26 and left the field with 4th-and-26 at the 42.
It was the beginning of the sequence that would win the Vols the National Championship.
Off the punt, Tennessee ran into the line twice and faced 3rd-and-9 at their own 21. There were still nine-and-a-half minutes to play, and the Vols were seemingly still just trying to hold on. They put Peerless Price alone out to the right, and Tee Martin dropoed back and simply let her rip.
Racing down the sideline, Price timed everything right. The ball sailed over the defender’s hands and into Price’s at just the right moment, and he came down with nothing but green in front of him.
79 yards later, the Vols had put enough distance between themselves and Florida State to secure the title.
It wasn’t done—it looked like it when Outzen fumbled on the next possession, but the Vols only got three out of it. Then Florida State finally put together a cohesive drive that ended in the end zone, cutting the lead to 23-16.
An onside kick bounced off Sebastian Janikowski’s large frame before going ten yards, giving the ball back to the Vols. Still, they maddeningly fumbled it back to FSU…only to watch Outzen throw a game-clinching interception on the very next play.
As the clock ticked down at Sun Devil Stadium, I tried to take it all in. Once the scoreboard hit 00:00 and they put that giant graphic up on the jumbotron that had the name of my school with the words “National Champions” next to it…I simply couldn’t believe it.
But I was going to enjoy it anyway.
Grown men in orange were crying. One of my Dad’s friends told me that they’ve been waiting their whole life for this, and I’m only 17 years old and get to enjoy it. A much younger-looking Phillip Fulmer was down on the field, holding up that giant crystal football.
And my favorite moment, shared only by those who were there:
ESPN and College GameDay had been ducking Knoxville all season. They had good reason: Chris Fowler said some things about the Vols and trailer parks without thinking in the Peyton Manning/Charles Woodson aftermath the previous year.
So in fear of the repercussions, GameDay didn’t come to Knoxville—not once all year during the magical 1998 season.
But in Tempe, they couldn’t hide anymore.
Vol fans stormed the in-stadium set immediately following the game. The best of us are chanting anything clever we can think of off the top of our elated heads. The worst of us are lobbing beverages over the net ESPN provides for their stars.
One of them comes six inches from Lee Corso’s head, who looks some awful combination of angry and afraid, and we all start chanting: “THIRSTY? THIRSTY? THIRSTY?”
It’s the little things you remember.