A look back at the UT Vols 1998 championship team.
Angela Gosnell, Knoxville News Sentinel
A new era had descended on college football.
At the end of the 1998 season, a computer algorithm would determine the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. They would play in college football’s first true national championship game.
That year was supposed to be one of transition for Tennessee, too. Several stars from the 1997 team that won an SEC title had graduated.
“There was a lot of doubt about Tennessee from the start,” said former News Sentinel sportswriter Mike Strange, who covered UT sports for 34 years. “Peyton’s gone. Leonard Little. All these guys are gone. Tennessee wasn’t supposed to be any good.”
Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer talks about his best memory of the 1998 championship football team
Brianna Paciorka, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
“Going into the season, there were plenty of folks out there who didn’t think we could win eight ballgames,” said Jeff Hall, UT’s kicker in 1998 and a team captain.
What followed was the most storied season in Tennessee history, one that culminated in a 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4, 1999, giving the Vols their first perfect season since 1938.
Twenty years later, those who were in Tempe, Ariz., that night reflect.
Entering the final Saturday of the regular season, Tennessee was No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings and needed to beat Mississippi State in the SEC Championship to remain undefeated.
UCLA was No. 2, followed by Kansas State and Florida State.
Holiday gift guide: Give a full year of KnoxNews.com for just $49, 6 months just $29
Tennessee, UCLA and KSU were undefeated. There was debate about which two teams would get the spots if all three won on that final Saturday. The computers would decide.
“We were going into the game thinking if we won, we would definitely be in,” linebacker Eric Westmoreland said. “The only other thing was, who would we play? Would it be UCLA? Would it be Kansas State?”
Florida State could only watch and hope. The Seminoles ended their regular season the week before by beating Florida 23-12.
Deon Grant, who was a safety for the ‘98 Vols, reflects on that national championship season before Tennessee’s game vs. Florida in September.
Blake Toppmeyer, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
UCLA took the stage first in a nonconference game against Miami that kicked off at 2 p.m. ET at the Orange Bowl. The game was a makeup game. It had been postponed in September because of the threat of Hurricane Georges. Edgerrin James’ 299 rushing yards helped rally Miami from a 17-point deficit to a 49-45 victory that ended UCLA’s 20-game winning streak.
“I remember watching it from the hotel. We were all sitting there like, ‘Wow, Edgerrin James is killing these boys,’ ” said Fred White, one of the Vols’ starting safeties.
Next up: Kansas State’s 19-game winning streak was on the line against Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship game at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis. A game that kicked off at 3:30 p.m. local time ended more than four hours later when Aggies backup quarterback Branndon Stewart completed a touchdown pass to Sirr Parker, giving Texas A&M a 36-33 win in double overtime. Stewart began his career at Tennessee, signing in the same class that included Peyton Manning.
Suddenly, Florida State’s position as first into the clubhouse looked enviable.
“I’ve never accomplished so much doing nothing (Saturday), just sitting on the couch,” Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden told the Los Angeles Times the next day.
But who would Florida State play?
The spot was Tennessee’s as long as the Vols could beat Mississippi State in their prime-time matchup.
The ’98 championship: Phillip Fulmer equates role as AD with Al Wilson’s leadership
Fred White, who played safety on the Vols’ 1998 national championship team, reflects on that season before Tennessee’s game against Florida in September.
Blake Toppmeyer, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
“It felt like that weekend was upset weekend,” White said. “I remember that day just thinking, ‘Wow, all these teams lost. We can’t be next.’ ”
Little came easy for the Vols that season. Already, they’d claimed one-possession victories over Syracuse, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas.
“To win a championship, you’re going to have to learn how to handle adversity,” Westmoreland said, “and you’re going to have to learn how to win tough, close games.”
The SEC Championship game was no different.
Tennessee overcame a four-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Bulldogs 24-14 at the Georgia Dome. Tee Martin threw touchdown passes to Peerless Price and Cedrick Wilson in a span of less than a minute midway through the fourth quarter to rally the Vols.
Tennessee and Florida State were headed to Tempe.
Neither team was playing with a full deck.
Third-string quarterback Marcus Outzen would steer FSU’s offense.
Dan Kendra positioned himself to be FSU’s starter until tearing his ACL in the spring game. Then Chris Weinke took the reins. Weinke threw six interceptions in a Week 2 loss to North Carolina State, but he improved as the season progressed, and FSU’s defense and do-it-all wide receiver Peter Warrick led a charge up the polls.
The Seminoles won their fourth straight game by at least 26 points when they defeated Virginia 45-14 on Nov. 7, but a first-half sack sent Weinke to the hospital. He suffered a herniated disc and bone chip in his neck.
Weinke’s season was finished.
Where they are now?: Checking in on the starting lineup in ’98 championship game
Had Kendra and Weinke been healthy, Outzen would have been along for the ride. Now, he was FSU’s starter. After finishing that Virginia game, Outzen piloted FSU to wins against Wake Forest and Florida. The Seminoles’ offense was diminished, but its defense remained stout.
Nicknamed “Rooster” because of his red hair, Outzen was more mobile than Weinke, but he didn’t have Weinke’s arm.
“I’m glad (Weinke) wasn’t playing,” Phillip Fulmer, who was Tennessee’s coach, said this summer. “He was a fabulous player.”
The Vols were without Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 1,364 yards in 1997. A knee injury limited him to four games in ’98.
Tennessee’s more-discussed absence leading up to the game, though, was that of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He left Knoxville in December after accepting the head coaching job at Ole Miss.
Running backs coach Randy Sanders would move from the sideline to the booth and call plays in the Fiesta Bowl. Other than spring games, Sanders had never served as primary play-caller.
“Calling the plays, to me, is one of the easier things. You’ve got to put the plan together,” said Sanders, who was a quarterback at UT from 1985-88. “The biggest thing was just finding ways to give our guys opportunities to make plays. I felt like we could do that.”
Despite Tennessee’s No. 1 ranking and undefeated record, the Vols were 5½-point underdogs.
As White recalls, it seemed every prognosticator picked the Seminoles. That included John Saunders and Todd Blackledge, who lodged their picks for FSU during ABC’s pregame show.
“When you know that’s how people perceive you, make no mistake, that definitely can motivate a group of guys to play really, really well,” Hall said.
Former Tennessee linebacker Al Wilson reflects on the Vols’ 1998 national championship
Blake Toppmeyer, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
Two factors weighed in FSU’s favor: a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation and the presence of Warrick, a consensus All-American.
“Make no mistake about it, Florida State has the best defense in all of college football,” ABC game analyst Bob Griese said before kickoff. Griese added that Warrick was “the most dangerous wide receiver in college football.”
Truth be told, there was one more reason why Florida State was favored.
“The name Florida State rings out loud,” White said. “Tennessee had never won a championship in the modern era. A lot of people looked at us and thought, ‘There’s no way they can beat Florida State.’ ”
Tennessee was enjoying its greatest era of football, but it couldn’t match FSU’s level of prominence. Under Bowden, the Seminoles ranked among college football’s elite.
FSU was in the midst of a 14-year stretch during which it won at least 10 games in every season. It won the national title in 1993.
“In 1998, Florida State, they were the glory boys. They were a national dynasty,” Strange said.
Strange was tasked with writing the News Sentinel’s game story from the Fiesta Bowl. It would run on the front page of the next day’s paper, and he’d be up against a tight deadline.
“In those days, the game story is a big deal. And I knew if Tennessee won, this game story is going to be framed on restaurant walls and bar walls,” Strange said. “I just thought about it during the day, ‘What if Tennessee wins? What’s my lede going to be?’ ”
Strange crafted his lede before kickoff, focusing on the Vols’ season-long underdog status.
Hall sat on a bench on the sideline to collect his thoughts before kickoff. Soon, he had a visitor. Joe Johnson, the university’s president, shook Hall’s hand and expressed his gratitude.
“I will never, ever forget that,” Hall said. “To this day, I just have this incredibly vivid memory of him sitting there and talking to me.”
The Fiesta Bowl: Tennessee takes the lead
The usually reliable Hall missed a field-goal attempt on Tennessee’s opening drive, and the game settled into a defensive struggle for much of the first quarter. Dwayne Goodrich shadowed Warrick. Westmoreland’s tackle for loss helped derail an FSU drive that started in Tennessee territory.
Sanders deployed a fairly conservative approach until he made the perfect play call late in the first quarter.
On first down from Tennessee’s 12-yard line, Martin faked a handoff and stood in the pocket behind nine-man protection. Price was his lone target.
Price slowed his stride 7 yards downfield and looked back at Martin before turning on the jets and burning past two defenders. Martin let it fly and hit Price in stride for a 76-yard gain.
FSU’s defensive approach was to play tight coverage and dare teams to beat them over the top. As Sanders put it, the Seminoles wanted to “take away your layup.”
The solution was to throw deep.
“That’s how N.C. State had beaten them earlier in the year, by winning the one-on-one matchups,” Sanders said. “Fortunately, we had some good receivers, but Peerless obviously had a big night winning some of those one-on-one matchups for us. The protection held up, and Tee did a great job getting the ball to him.”
Florida State bottled up three straight running plays inside the red zone, and Hall took the field for a 24-yard field-goal attempt early in the second quarter.
Hall’s kick was pure. FSU’s Dexter Jackson brushed against Hall’s right foot while diving to try to block the kick. Hall spun to the ground, and an official threw a flag for roughing the kicker.
“The guy really didn’t hit me that hard,” Hall said, “but that’s the thing about kickers and punters. They teach you from a very early age, if you even feel somebody breathe on you, you need to fall down like you’re writhing in pain.”
Fulmer had a decision to make. An old football adage says never take points off the board, but accepting the penalty would mean first-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
Fulmer and Sanders discussed the options over the headsets.
Sanders assured the coach that if Fulmer accepted the penalty, the Vols would score on the next play.
Fulmer accepted the penalty. Sanders called a halfback pass. Sure enough, tight end John Finlayson was open in the end zone.
Travis Henry got the pass off with a defender in his face. It came up short of Finlayson.
“I can remember when that ball bounced thinking, ‘Uh oh. I just stuck my neck out here, told him we were going to score,’ ” Sanders said.
Sanders cleared his name on the next play.
He called a play the Vols had installed during bowl preparation where fullback Shawn Bryson spilled into the left flat.
Martin executed his fake and flipped to Bryson.
“I was wide open. I had some space and some separation,” Bryson said. “Tee threw the ball to me. I caught it and just tried to get into the zone.”
Bryson won the race to the goal line, cutting just inside the pylon.
The Vols were on the board.
The Fiesta Bowl: An interception and a touchdown-saving tackle
White remembers Tennessee’s defensive backs gathering at Goodrich’s house to study game film after learning the Vols would play FSU. One of the defensive backs offered an idea: Why not play bump-and-run coverage against Warrick, something few defenses tried?
The assignment fell to Goodrich, the lone returning starter in the secondary from the 1997 season.
Outzen started FSU’s drive following Bryson’s touchdown with a 29-yard pass to Ron Dugans. On the next play, Warrick ran an out route, and Outzen floated a long pass toward the sideline. Goodrich cut in front of Warrick to intercept the pass. No one stood between Goodrich and the end zone.
Goodrich raced 54 yards across the goal line and continued out the back of the end zone and into the arms of Smokey, Tennessee’s costumed mascot.
“We had them at that point,” White said.
It takes more than one haymaker to knock out a team of FSU’s caliber, though, and the Seminoles used their vaunted defense to get back into the game.
Derrick Gibson’s interception and long return set up the Seminoles for a short touchdown drive. After another FSU stop, Warrick showed why he was one of the game’s most explosive playmakers. He could beat you with more than his hands.
He fielded David Leaverton’s punt and weaved his way down the field. Seven Vols missed tackles.
One man remained between Warrick and the end zone: the punter.
“David Leaverton made the best tackle I have ever seen covering 30-some years of Tennessee football,” Strange said. “It’s one thing if Al Wilson makes a tackle. It’s one thing if Deon Grant makes a tackle. But David Leaverton, the punter, squares up and just nails a guy that was a Heisman Trophy candidate.”
Leaverton halted Warrick’s 51-yard return, and the Vols held FSU to a field goal.
Tennessee led 14-9 at halftime.
Fiesta Bowl: 69 Go
That’s where the score remained into the fourth quarter.
The Vols continually pressured Outzen and sacked him four times. Penalties derailed what little offensive progress FSU made. Eight of the Seminoles’ 12 penalties came on offense.
But through three quarters, FSU’s defense lived up to its billing. It would take only one slip-up for Tennessee to lose its lead.
The Vols split three receivers wide for a third-and-9 play from their own 21-yard line with 9½ minutes to play.
Sanders can rattle off numerous play calls from that night.
This one, he’ll never forget.
It was the type of play that’s installed on Day 1 of preseason camp.
Each of the three wide receivers ran a vertical route. Basically, it was backyard football.
“Let’s just keep it simple, take the doubts out of it, and let’s just go vertical and see if one of our guys can win, and see if the quarterback can make the throw,” Sanders said, recalling his mindset behind that play call.
Martin had good protection and unfurled a deep pass toward Price, who raced alongside FSU cornerback Mario Edwards up the sideline.
“Any given day, Peerless could run by anybody,” Bryson said.
Price gained a half-step advantage, and the ball settled into his hands.
Price didn’t slow down until he reached the end zone, where he struck a pose to celebrate his 79-yard touchdown.
“It just could not have been thrown really any better or caught any better,” Strange said. “Just a great home-run ball.”
On FSU’s first play after Price’s touchdown, Shaun Ellis dragged down Outzen from behind and jarred the ball loose. UT’s Billy Ratliff recovered the fumble.
Hall converted the takeaway into a field goal, and the Vols led 23-9.
The Seminoles were crumbling.
Fiesta Bowl: A final stop
Outzen responded to his fumble by engineering FSU’s best drive of the night.
He completed a long third-down pass to Dugans. Two plays later, Outzen ran 7 yards into the end zone on a quarterback draw.
The Seminoles trailed 23-16 with 3:42 remaining. Rather than count on FSU’s defense to generate a quick stop, Bowden elected for an onside kick.
Sebastian Janikowski dribbled a kick. The ball rolled 10 yards, and he fell on it.
FSU appeared to have possession with a chance to tie the score.
Instant replay was still six years away, but the officials didn’t need it to overturn their initial ruling and correct this critical call.
The ball had bounced off the burly Janikowski before it traveled 10 yards. That’s a penalty for illegal touching.
Tennessee took possession and inched closer to victory after Martin completed a fourth-down pass to Bryson on the same play call that produced the game’s first touchdown.
Bryson stepped out of bounds at the 11-yard line, stopping the clock with 1:36 remaining.
FSU had all three timeouts, so the Vols couldn’t move into victory formation.
Sanders called for a handoff from Martin to Henry.
“It’s one of the first plays you run when you start playing in the third grade or the fourth grade,” Sanders said. “It was just kind of a dive right, where the quarterback just opens up, hands it to the back and the back hits right off the guard.”
Somehow, Martin and Henry fumbled the exchange.
The Seminoles recovered.
Tennessee’s defense needed to make one more stop.
“All our guys were hungry,” Westmoreland said. “Going back out there was not a burden on us. It was something that we said, ‘Hey, let’s go back out here one more time and show them that they can’t score.’ ”
Goodrich had exited the game late in the second quarter with an ankle injury. In his absence, Steve Johnson took over primary duties on Warrick, who finished the game with one catch.
Tennessee dropped eight men into zone coverage on the first play after the fumble. Outzen threw deep down the middle toward Laveranues Coles in double coverage. The pass ricocheted off Grant’s chest toward Johnson, who corralled the interception.
“I think that’s when it sank in,” Bryson said.
Tennessee needed one first down before Martin took a knee to run out the clock.
Strange’s game story on the front page of the next day’s News Sentinel would read:
TEMPE, Ariz. – The doubters are silenced, finally. Tennessee came to the desert certain there would be a national championship for the taking.
They were right. It was no mirage.
As Strange predicted, that framed front page is displayed in businesses around town.
Fiesta Bowl: Champions
Up in the booth, Sanders stood on his wheeled chair in jubilation.
Down on the field, Price hurled his helmet into the air. Martin pointed a finger to the sky.
In the stands, orange-clad fans celebrated Tennessee’s first consensus national championship since 1951.
“You just want it to keep going on,” Sanders said. “You wish you could pause time and stay on that field in Tempe for hours.”