Team of the Week: 1998 Football Champions

In the first edition of Team of the Week, we take a look at the incredible 1998 season, the last time the Volunteers won a national championship.

[title_box title=”Team of the Week: 1998 Football Champions”]

The University of Tennessee has had tons of great football teams throughout its storied history. There has been dominance, championships and ground breaking victories. In this inaugural Team of the Week piece, the focus is the 1998 version of the Volunteers, a team that climbed the mountain and became the first ever BCS National Champions.

To begin, some background should be established about this particular squad. Tennessee was coming off a baffling 42-17 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, a game that ended an overall disappointing season for the Vols. They had been favorites throughout the year to win the national championship, but they finished 11-2, with yet another loss to Florida, their fifth straight, and a blowout loss to the Cornhuskers.

To make matters worse, they lost several of their top players after the 1997 season, including Peyton Manning and Leonard Little. However, the Volunteers still possessed a wealth of talent and were picked to finish second in the SEC East, just behind the Gators. Little did the world know, the Vols, behind leaders Tee Martin, Travis Henry and Al Wilson, were gearing up for a magical run.

Tennessee began the 1998 season with two consecutive games against ranked opponents, the first of which was a trip to the Carrier Dome to play the Syracuse Orangemen. Although some assumed they would be looking ahead to their rivalry showdown the following week, the Volunteers came to play, winning 34-33. Following this nail biting victory, Tennessee climbed in the rankings and set up a top 10 showdown with the Gators.

Photo by Kevan Elkins
Photo by Kevan Elkins

Although Tennessee was anemic on offense and could not get anything going all day, its defense was stellar and created four turnovers, including two fumbles forced by Al Wilson. These turnovers, and the Volunteer defense as a whole, were the difference. Tennessee was able to finish off the second-ranked Gators 20-17 in overtime, remaining undefeated and snapping a five-game losing streak to Florida. The Vols went on to win their next six games relatively easily, with their closest contest being a 35-18 victory over Alabama.

Tennessee’s next major test came on Nov. 14 when it faced off against the No. 10 Arkansas Razorbacks. It was also the first game that Tennessee was ranked No. 1 in quite some time. The pressure appeared to affect the Vols, as they fell behind 21-3 in the first half. With its undefeated hopes in serious jeopardy, Tennessee showed mettle and resolve and led an incredible comeback. Led by running back Travis Henry, who scored the game winning touchdown, The Vols won 28-24. Tennessee wrapped up the season with two blowout victories, including a 41-0 thrashing of in-state rival Vanderbilt.

Up next was the SEC Championship Game against the No. 23 Mississippi State Bulldogs in Atlanta. The game, much like the early season contest against Florida, was largely a defensive battle. Early in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs led 14-10. Tennessee scored two touchdowns on the arm of quarterback Tee Martin, which put the game at 24-14. That would end up being the final score as the Volunteers earned a berth against the Florida State Seminoles in the inaugural BCS National Championship game.

Played at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, the Seminoles were favored to defeat the unbeaten Volunteers. However, fueled by Peerless Price’s explosive performance, with four catches and 199 yards, Tennessee was able to vanquish Florida State 23-16. With this victory, the Vols had won their first national championship in 31 years, and their first unanimous national championship in 47 years. Phillip Fulmer was awarded Coach of the Year and Al Wilson was named an AP 1st-team All –American.

Overall, this team was incredibly successful, but what could make its accomplishments even more impressive? According to the Billingsley Report on Major College Football, the 1998 Tennessee Volunteer football team is ranked as the third-greatest college football team ever, which further demonstrates just how amazing this team truly was. The list of the 200 best teams of all time, according to the Billingsley Report, can be found here.

Edited by Cody McClure

+ posts

Adam is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Tennessee Journalist and a Junior at UT. Most of his free time is spent watching sports, listening to good music, and enjoying life. If you wish to contact him, you can email him at amillike@vols.utk.edu, follow him on Twitter, @AdamMilliken14, or find him at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/adam-milliken/109/a89/a32.