Tennessee Volunteers' 1998 National Championship: Part XII

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Tennessee Volunteers' 1998 National Championship:  Part XII

As we've followed the story of the '98 Vols, we've seen that Tennessee built off a foundation laid by Peyton Manning and company in the years leading up to that magical campaign.

The story that bridges the gap between 1998 and 2008 raises questions about what the Vols have done since their championship foundation was laid, and reveals how special and unique the '98 season truly was.

With the title in '98, the Vols wrapped up an amazing four year run of 45-5 football with three bowl wins and two finishes in the top three nationally. Phillip Fulmer was validated as college football's winningest active coach in only his sixth full season. And in the SEC, Tennessee's back-to-back titles and ability to finally beat Florida ushered in the end of the Gators' era of dominance.

Off the 13-0 championship season, the Vols returned most of their weapons in 1999 and entered the season ranked second. Peerless Price was gone but would be replaced by Cedrick Wilson as the go-to guy. The losses of Shaun Ellis and Darwin Walker on the defensive line would be filled by a pair of youngsters named Will Overstreet and John Henderson, who would eventually pair with Albert Haynesworth to give Tennessee one of the best defensive lines in SEC history by 2001.

And while Al Wilson couldn't be replaced, Eric Westmoreland and Raynoch Thompson were still around. The return of a healthy Jamal Lewis combined with Travis Henry and Travis Stephens, plus a freshman named Onterrio Smith gave the Vols the most loaded four-deep backfield in recent memory.

While many remember 1999 in hindsight as a group of players with rings who were more interested in their Sunday futures than their Saturday present, the Vols were still arguably two plays from playing for it all again.

At Florida, the Vols really didn't play well and allowed Alex Brown to become famous as he figured out the Vols' snap count and scored five sacks. Still, Tennessee used a 99 yard touchdown drive en route to cutting a 23-7 third quarter hole down to 23-21.

And when Deon Grant made an interception late in the 4th, I turned to my friend in the upper deck at The Swamp (in my only visit) and said "We've got them now."

But on 4th and 3, Tennessee inexplicably called a toss sweep to Jamal Lewis to run away from Alex Brown, and Florida stopped him cold.

The Vols continued to roll the rest of the season before karma got even at Arkansas, where the Hogs erased a 24-14 third quarter hole, scored on a late touchdown and then denied the Vols in the red zone to beat Tennessee 28-24, the exact same score from the previous year in Knoxville. And Clint Stoerner could sleep at night again.

Tennessee was No. 2 in the BCS when they lost at Arkansas. The Vols still earned an at-large bid and played in the Fiesta Bowl again. Unfortunately, they also played Nebraska again, who beat the Vol D into submission in a 31-21 win.

After a rebuilding year in 2000, the reigns were fully handed to Casey Clausen in 2001. Three years removed from the '98 title, a mostly new cast of characters combined to make up a Tennessee team that I believe to this day was every bit as talented as any who've ever worn the uniform:

Clausen at quarterback, with Travis Stephens becoming a Doak Walker finalist in his senior season. An incredible receiving tandem of Donte' Stallworth, Kelley Washington and Jason Witten behind a nasty offensive line. The aforementioned defensive line prowess of Overstreet, Henderson and Haynesworth. Kevin Burnett and Andre Lott also filled out the defense. This team was stout.

And just like 1999, two games that could've, should've gone the other way kept the Vols out of the National Championship picture.

After 9/11 moved the Florida game to December, the Vols beat LSU and jumped out to a two possession lead against Georgia. When the Dawgs rallied and took a late lead, Travis Stephens took a screen pass 62 yards for a score with under a minute to play.

But the forty-plus seconds left were enough time for freshman David Greene to lead the Dawgs downfield, where they'd eventually find a Hobnailed Boot and win in Knoxville for the first time in two decades.

But by December, the Vols had played themselves into position for that loss not to hurt them.

Down in Florida, the No. 2 Gators and No. 4 Vols played probably the single best minute-for-minute football game I've ever seen, with Tennessee coming out on top 34-32 behind Travis Stephens' 226 yards. The Vols' first win in The Swamp since the 1970s moved them to No. 2 in the BCS heading to the SEC Championship Game, where they'd only need to beat LSU for the second time that year to advance to the Rose Bowl and play Miami for the title.

And in what I believe is the most heartbreaking loss in Tennessee football history, the Vols built a 17-7 lead and knocked both QB Rohan Davey and RB LaBrandon Toefield out of the game. But LSU, behind the play of Matt Mauck, rallied to take the lead behind a Travis Stephens fumble, and Donte' Stallworth fumbled in the 4th quarter with the Vols driving to take the lead. LSU scored one late to win 31-20.

And that's as close as the Vols have been to the National Championship since.

After throttling Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, expectations were high in 2002 as the Vols entered the year ranked No. 3. Steve Spurrier was gone, a loser to the Vols the last time he saw them (something I'll always treasure) and '02 was supposed to be the year Tennessee took the SEC mantle from the Gators.

Ron Zook's Florida team had lost to Miami before the Tennessee game, and a rainy afternoon in Knoxville had all of us in orange eager to put the final nail in the Gators' coffin.

Florida scored on 4th and goal at the one yard line with just under five minutes to play in the first half to break a scoreless tie. From there, everything went wrong.

In the downpour, Casey Clausen mishandled more snaps than I can or want to remember. In rapid succession, Rex Grossman took the Gators from a 7-0 lead to a 24-0 nightmare at halftime. Tennessee never recovered in a 30-13 loss.

From there, injuries helped the Vols' downward spiral.

Clausen was injured in a six overtime affair with Arkansas, unable to go against Georgia, where the Vols played valliantly but still lost 18-13. Late in that game, Kelley Washington would be lost for the year, which helped factor into Alabama ended their seven year drought against the Vols 34-14.

Then Tennessee had the misfortune of having No. 1 Miami on the schedule, as the Canes destroyed the depleted Vols. An ugly and dispassionate loss to Maryland in the Peach Bowl ended the 8-5 misery.

After a respectable 2003 regular season that saw the Vols beat Florida, win at Miami and split the Eastern Division title three ways, the No. 6 Vols threw it away in another ugly Georgia Dome performance, losing to Clemson 27-14.

Casey Clausen gave way to Erik Ainge (and Brent Schaeffer) in 2004, where the Vols again put some pieces together to start thinking about championships.

A miraculous win over Florida was seemingly tainted by an Auburn buzzsaw, but then Tennessee went to Athens and stunned undefeated Georgia 19-14.

From there, the Vols wouldn't lose an SEC game the rest of the regular season, and rose to 9th in the polls with an Atlanta rematch with undefeated Auburn on the horizon.

But against Notre Dame in late November, an absurd decision to try and throw downfield in the final moments of the first half turned into a fumbled shotgun snap, and that turned into Erik Ainge separating his shoulder in an attempt to recover it.

Ainge was lost for the year, Rick Clausen came in to throw an interception that would be returned for a touchdown, and the Vols fell.

Tennessee lost to Auburn again in the SEC Championship, but again an impressive bowl performance - this time 38-7 over Texas A&M in the Cotton - raised expectations for 2005.

But for the second time this decade, the Vols went into the season with a top three ranking, and left it in complete disaster.

In 2005, Tennessee made more crucial mistakes than any other season I can remember. Between offensive red zone turnovers, special teams breakdowns and a general malaise that seemed to plague the team, the Vols went 5-6 (and would've been 4-7 if not for an overtime rally at LSU). Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders resigned, and 1998 seemed like a long time ago.

The past two seasons have been a more enjoyable roller coaster, but a roller coaster nonetheless.

In 2006, the Vols opened by blowing out Cal in Knoxville, then played eventual National Champion Florida to a 21-20 heartbreaking loss. Then the Vols won five straight, rising back to No. 8 in the polls and still one Florida loss away from retaking the SEC East lead.

But at South Carolina, on another absurd decision, a quarterback draw for the lightning fast Erik Ainge resulted in a sprained ankle. The Vols would go on to win in Columbia, but with No. 13 LSU and No. 11 Arkansas next on the docket, things were not looking good.

Jonathan Crompton and the Vols gave a valliant effort against the Tigers, but a three-to-one time of possession disadvantage and a missed call on a JaMarcus Russell fumble late in the 4th gave way to a touchdown pass to Early Doucet with less than ten seconds to play, and LSU won 28-24.

Without Ainge the following week again, the Vols were dismantled by Arkansas, and the season was lost.

The season appeared lost on three separate occasions in 2007.

First Cal returned the favor in a season opener. Then Florida scored 31 consecutive points in the third and fourth quarter in the worst Vol loss since 1981, 59-20.

And even after the Vols blew out a Georgia team that would eventually rise to No. 2 nationally, Alabama blasted Tennessee 41-17.

But the topsy-turvey 2007 college football season found a way to reward the Vols: Florida lost three SEC contests, and Tennessee made every play they needed to make in close wins against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and four overtimes with Kentucky to win the SEC East.

And the Vols were two Erik Ainge 4th quarter interceptions away from beating LSU in the SEC Championship Game.

As 2008 unfolds, the Vols find themselves again behind Florida, Georgia and LSU in hype. Phillip Fulmer's contract was recently extended, and the dean of SEC coaches appears safe until retirement (barring another 2005).

It's interesting to look at Fulmer, who's still the winningest active coach in college football among coaches with 10+ years of experience. Since becoming the head man at Tennessee in 1993, there have been 41 other head coaching moves in the SEC.

And it's interesting to note that in the nine seasons since the Vols won it all, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have each won the East division three times. The difference there is, the Gators and Dawgs have made good on their Atlanta opportunities two times apiece, while the Vols have gone 0-3.

Both in terms of overall talent reduction in Knoxville and the rise of several other SEC programs, it's a different world than it was in 1998.

The SEC was Florida, then Tennessee, then everyone else from 1995-2001. Since then, LSU has won two National Championships, Auburn's had an undefeated season, and Georgia's won the conference twice.

The 1998 squad has sent Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Shawn Bryson, Peerless Price, Cedrick Wilson, Cosey Coleman, Chad Clifton, Shaun Ellis, Darwin Walker, Al Wilson and Deon Grant to productive careers in the NFL.

That level of talent doesn't live in Knoxville anymore, in large part because more talent lives in Athens and Baton Rouge these days.

All of these factors help remind me that the 1998 season was truly unique and special.

Of the four SEC teams who've won a BCS National Championship, only the Vols did so as an undefeated team. And while the Vols have both been close a couple times since then, and have been terrible a couple times when they were supposed to be close, the new landscape of the SEC brings some old truths into play:

The SEC is tough enough that anybody can beat anybody, where six teams come to August with real hopes of winning it and several others can make plenty of noise.

LSU won the title last year with two SEC triple overtime losses and a handful of other razor-thin conference wins, then destroyed the number one team in the country the same way Florida had done the previous year.

In 2007, Florida beat Tennessee by 39. Tennessee beat Georgia by 21. Georgia beat Florida by 12.

There are no off weeks, and every game is truly a challenge.

But despite that...no matter how tough the league may be, the Vols are still good enough to compete. And still goood enough to win.

Tennessee will face no one this year where they will use talent as an excuse if they get beat. The Vols have built expectations continuing off their championship foundation, and even if the talent is slightly down and the competition is way up...Tennessee is still good enough to win in this league, ten years from a National Championship and one year off an Eastern Division title.

The SEC is good enough to beat you every week. But Tennessee, ten years from their undefeated season, is still good enough to carry the fight to the opposition and keep it there for sixty minutes. 1998 was unique. But its legacy, ten years later, finds Tennessee still coming into August with championship goals, and the talent and ability to still carry them out.

We didn't know what 1998 would hold when the season began. The story that unfolded was the greatest in Tennessee football history.

What story will the Vols tell in 2008?

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