Editor’s note: Welcome to Tennessee Week. Our special series — “Undefeated. Unexpected. Unforgettable.” — celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Vols’ 1998 national championship season.

Fans and media always want more access to their favorite college football teams. What are the coaches really thinking? How is the team performing in practice? That type of access to Tennessee’s offense would have been rather uninspiring before the 1998 season.

UT’s offense had to be rebuilt following the 1997 season. The entire philosophy of the offense that had thrived for 3-plus years under Peyton Manning had to be reworked. Manning was gone, as was the tendency for coaches to throw the ball more aggressively with him at the helm. The Vols had to morph into something different on offense.

1997 Vols with Manning
Scoring: 32.9 points, No. 19 nationally
Passing: 296-492, 37 TDs, 12 INTs
Rushing: 397 att., 1,835 yards, 13 TDs

1998 Vols with Martin
Scoring: 33.2, No. 19 nationally
Passing: 157-275, 2,250 yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs
Rushing: 517 att., 2,536 yards, 27 TDs

“I don’t think there’s any question,” former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said during a recent interview to discuss the magical run to the national championship. “One of the things that we became, we became physical. That 1998 team could run power. We defined that starting in the spring. I think we played a role in our defense becoming maybe the best defense in the country because we went right at them. They beat us and beat us up badly.

“That spring I started to wonder if we’d ever make a first down, but we did not back off.”

Tee Martin was tabbed to replace Manning in 1998. Martin admitted that he lacked the consistency his coaches were looking for in spring practice. It couldn’t have been a fun time.

“As a competitor, you just want to be good, period,” Martin said. “You want to win at everything.”

That wasn’t happening for Martin or UT’s offense as they struggled in the offseason in spring practice and summer workouts. Fortunately, Tennessee’s coaches adapted to Martin’s strengths instead of simply running the offense that Manning had mastered.

“Obviously, the whole key of it was what was Tee Martin going to be able to really do,” former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “We found a way to make it happen.”

Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics.

UT’s coaches decided to lean on some old tricks. They built their offense as it had been under former quarterback Heath Shuler. Like Martin, Shuler was known for his mobility and strong arm. In order to take advantage of Martin’s talents, the Vols started exploring ways to move the pocket and ran more naked bootlegs and waggles.

“We used some of those plays and systems to fit Tee,” Fulmer said. “Tee was more like Heath than he was Peyton — for sure early.”

Martin wasn’t the only concern on UT’s offense headed into the 1998 season. Fulmer said the Vols had to make adjustments on the offensive line, figure out how to handle the rotation of a talented group of tailbacks and replace two receivers that were selected in the NFL Draft. It wasn’t an easy challenge.

“Fall camp was a little frightening,” Cutcliffe said. “I wasn’t sure we were ready to go to Syracuse and be successful offensively against a good Syracuse football team. We had already made a commitment to our offensive line and our backs. We lived with it.”

UT’s offense also lived with daily beatdowns in practice. The Vols’ defense never took it easy on their offensive counterparts just because they played on the same team. Former UT linebacker Al Wilson (below) chuckled when he was asked about the offense’s struggles heading into the 1998 season.

Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics.

“It was tough for the offense. I’ll say that,” Wilson said. “We had one of the best defenses in the country so we didn’t make it easy on them. We took it very seriously to go out and compete with them because at the end of the day, if they can move the ball on us, they can move the ball on anybody in the country. That’s the way we felt.

“It wasn’t about going out and taking it easy. It was about going out and competing and making these guys play football on the other side. They had some damn good football players over there. If we can make it tough on them in practice, then it should be alot easier for them on Saturday.”

Martin had waited too long behind Manning to wilt. He relished the opportunity to face UT’s defense in practice. It was the ultimate test.

“There wasn’t a defense that we faced that season that from top to bottom could play man, could play zone, could pressure you, could stop the run, could take away your best wideouts in the passing game,” Martin said. “I thought (defensive coordinator) John Chavis did a really good job of positioning the talent on our defense to be successful for his scheme. … I really feel thought that defense was intelligent and talented and that’s what made them what they were.”

That mindset was brought on by the former leaders UT had, such as Manning and defensive end Leonard Little among others. Hard work was the only way the Vols could overcome the many personnel losses from the previous season. Hard work? The 1998 Vols were used to that from previous seasons.

“There were a lot of lessons learned by our players about commitment to football and work ethic,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve told Peyton and those guys that they had a lot to do with that national championship. No doubt in my mind.”

Fulmer, Cutcliffe and UT’s offensive coaching staff also deserve plenty of credit. Their adjustments put aside those profound offseason concerns.

NEXT: Tee Martin didn’t try to be Peyton Manning. And that was the perfect strategy.

Travis Henry cover photo courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics.

Read More

Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.