Undefeated. Unexpected. Unforgettable: Welcome to a weeklong celebration of Tennessee football's 1998 national championship season
Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a weeklong series — “Undefeated. Unexpected. Unforgettable.” — celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship season.
I walked out of the Orange Bowl that night determined that I’d never be a fan of any school moving forward, even my alma mater that I had cheered for throughout my entire life.
I had no qualms with Tennessee, even after the Vols had just gotten hammered by Nebraska 42-17, ending Peyton Manning’s career. My decision wasn’t emotional. I wasn’t some sort of scorned fan who swore off his team forever. I had made the professional decision to remove fandom from any team I would be potentially covering — and I was pretty sure I’d be covering UT or another SEC team.
My girlfriend didn’t believe I could suddenly stop being the rabid fan who threw things at the television, yelled to the heavens and suffered through a mini-depression if the Vols lost. She also probably didn’t believe I’d marry her. She was wrong on both accounts.
I felt I owed it to fans of any team I eventually covered to provide an objective view of their program.
So after the game, I retired my Vols fandom and headed into the South Beach nightlife intent on being unbiased forever more.
Man, that was some terrible timing.
You might recall, just a few short months later, Tennessee won every game it played in 1998 and captured its first national title in 47 years. Every game I attended was from the press box. I traded my ticket for a media credential. That was a far different experience from being in the student section, where I had been seated until I graduated from UT following the 1998 spring semester.
Even through my unbiased view, I felt the same way leading up to the 1998 Tennessee-Florida game that I had felt for most of the 1990s. The Vols had a shot, especially at home, because they had comparable talent to the No. 2-ranked Gators.
That game will always go down as one of the most amazing I have seen. The Gators outplayed the Vols except for a few key plays, yet UT won on Jeff Hall’s field goal. John Ward said, “Pandemonium Reigns” as the fans rushed the field. There are still pieces of Neyland Stadium’s goal posts throughout Tennessee.
The first person I saw on the sideline after the Florida game was UT defensive back Steve Johnson, who later sealed the national title with an interception against Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl National Championship Game. Johnson was a fellow communications major, so we knew each other from taking classes together. He immediately gave me a huge hug as if I had done something. I’ll never forget the elation on his face.
After that Week 2 victory, it seemed as if Knoxville held its collective breath for the rest of the season. After all, the Vols had beaten Florida, so they controlled their fate. But the Vols had lost so much from 1997, including Manning, could they really run the table and win every game?
The Vols needed a stout defense to beat Auburn on the road. Then the Vols dominated a very good Georgia team. According to then-head coach Phillip Fulmer, that was a turning point. The Vols beat the Bulldogs thoroughly after losing star tailback Jamal Lewis to knee injury against the Tigers.
Even with the Lewis’ injury, it seemed the path had been laid for the Vols. UT was favored in its next three games, against Alabama, South Carolina and UAB. They won those games handily.
Tennessee had long been known to have a pretty easy ride in November with Kentucky and Vanderbilt on the schedule each season. However, 1998 was different. Arkansas also dreamed of a national title and could have achieved it if not for a fumble late in the game by quarterback Clint Stoerner. The Vols escaped with a win. According to every player I’ve spoken to, that was when they truly believed they were destined to be national champions.
I met Stoerner in Fayetteville years later. I told him he was an incredibly popular man in Knoxville. That didn’t go over well. Stoerner had no response and made sure to ignore me for the rest of evening. I have a habit of not using a filter far too often. That was one of those instances.
Things fell right for the Vols after they beat Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game. The Vols needed some upsets in other games around the nation. They got them. That opened the door for UT to play Florida State in the national title game. That was a great Seminole team, but injuries forced them to play third-string quarterback Marcus Outzen, instead of Chris Weinke. Outzen was woefully outmanned against UT’s defense.
Some call that 1998 national title team the luckiest national championship team in college football history. Maybe it was. Maybe it was just fortunate and really good. I tend to think the latter. I’ll let you decide as we look back all week on Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team 20 years later.
NEXT: 13 key moments that helped Vols go 13-0, win it all
Cover photo courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics. Illustration by Chris Stoney.