The 1998 National Championship team is remembered now as one of the program's greatest teams with arguably the program's greatest defense. The lore of that team would be written with dominant performances against Georgia, Alabama, Auburn and others, combined with an ability to win close games against all odds, highlighted by improbable victories against Florida and Arkansas.
But before all of that, the '98 Vols were, on paper, a rebuilding project. And all of this destiny talk was a split-second away from being silenced in the very first game.
Peyton Manning's graduation following the 1997 season appeared to be the end of an era: Manning had gone 39-6 as a starter, leading the Vols to a #2 finish in 1995 and an SEC Championship and a potential shot at the National Championship in 1997.
Tennessee got their rings in Atlanta and then got murdered by Nebraska, but then Manning and seemingly everyone else graduated. In the spring of 98, the Vols had three players taken in the first round of the NFL Draft (Manning, CB Terry Fair and WR Marcus Nash), two others taken in the third round (DEs Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown), and three others on the draft's second day (WR Andy McCullough, C Trey Teague and DB Corey Gaines). The cupboard wasn't bare...but it sure looked different.
Into the big shoes of the number one overall pick stepped Tee Martin, an inexperienced junior who waited his turn when Manning decided to come back for his senior season. Manning had always made Joey Kent and Marcus Nash his go-to receivers, and with both now gone a new number one receiver would have to emerge. The Vols were also replacing more than half of their defense, including two brand new defensive ends to replace Little and Brown, who sacked more quarterbacks than anyone to wear orange that wasn't named Reggie White.
In the weeks leading up to the '98 season, we didn't know how Tee Martin would turn out. We didn't know Peerless Price would become that definitive go-to receiver. And we didn't know Shaun Ellis would become one of those defensive ends.
And for all the great things the '98 defense would eventually go on to do, it didn't look like they were going to be any good at all after they were introduced to Donovan McNabb.
19. 1998: #10 Tennessee 34 - #17 Syracuse 33 (Carrier Dome)
The 98 Defense gave up only 17 points to Florida. 9 points at Auburn. 3 points at Georgia. The starters helped Tennessee secure a 56-7 lead on Tim Couch and Kentucky before the backups gave up two late garbage TDs. They shut out Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game (with the Bulldogs scoring on an INT return and a punt return), and held Florida State to only 16 in the National Championship Game. For the season, the Vol defense allowed only 14 points and 303 yards per game.
Against McNabb and Syracuse, the same defense was ripped for 33 points and 445 yards.
On this high noon season opening Saturday kickoff, McNabb went 22 of 28 for exactly 300 yards, and continued to write the Syracuse legacy that would ultimately lead to a Big East Championship and BCS appearance later that same season, before he went on to star in Philadelphia and Chunky Soup commercials. The Vols sacked him three times and hit him several others (watching the highlights of this game on DVD, it's amazing how much they've changed the roughing the passer rules in just ten years), and he did fumble some snaps (on the day, Syracuse fumbled five times but only lost two of them), but McNabb couldn't be shaken.
There's a play early in this game where McNabb should've been sacked three times, but instead he shook free of Billy Ratliff's grasp, then completely jumps over Eric Westmoreland (no, really), then shakes three additional defenders in what turns into a five yard gain.
His counterpart didn't exactly set the world on fire in his first start: Tee Martin's Tennessee career began with a Cromptonesque 9 for 26 for 143 yards. Again, nothing to make anyone think that the Vols would be raising that crystal football in January...or be winning this game.
But Martin had one advantage: Jamal Lewis and an experienced offensive line.
Four starters returned up front, and the new guy was Cosey Coleman, who went on to star in the NFL along with Chad Clifton; those two combining with Spencer Riley and two of the all-time greatest names in Tennessee history - Jarvis Reado and Mercedes Hamilton - made for a formidable offensive line that opened big holes for the Vols' darkhorse Heisman candidate.
Lewis would run for 141 yards on only 20 carries on this day, and while Tee Martin only completed nine passes, he completed all the ones he had to. That started with a TD to Peerless Price in the first quarter to put the Vols up 7-0. Late in the first half, Syracuse fumbled at their own 15 yard line - the first of many plays that, had any of them gone the other way, the outcome of this game is different - leading to a Tee Martin sneak and a 14-7 Tennessee lead. But Syracuse used the final :53 seconds of the first half to move into field goal range, and the Vols had only a 14-10 lead at halftime.
The 'Cuse had first and goal at the five early in the third quarter, but couldn't get in - Dwayne Goodrich made a huge stop on FB Rob Konrad on a third and goal screen pass, and a Syracuse FG cut the lead to 14-13 in the third.
Peerless Price made a sensational full-stop catch on a deep ball from Martin that was thrown way short on the next drive, and a Jamal Lewis score followed by a field goal off a turnover put Tennessee ahead 24-13 going to the fourth. Despite all the youth and inexperience, plus the hostile environment, all appeared to be well.
The fourth quarter of this game is one of the wildest in Vol history - 30 total points scored and an ending that currently ranks it on collegefootballnews.com's 100 Greatest Finishes. Syracuse scored five minutes into the fourth, got the ball back, and almost immediately scored again on a McNabb option run. Suddenly, the Cuse had their first lead at 27-24, and Tee Martin would have to lead the Vols from behind at the end.
Facing 3rd and 10 on the ensuing drive, Tee Martin dropped back to pass, and Tennessee's legendary play-by-play man John Ward made the first of his memorable '98 calls: seeing it open up and as if commanding Martin from on high, Ward gave the word: "Run with that football." And Martin took off.
55 yards and a late hit penalty later, Tennessee was in business. Martin finished with 81 yards on the ground on the day, and then made the most of another one of his completions, hitting Peerless from eight yards out for their second score, and putting the Vols back up 31-27.
But still, 8:30 remained on the clock.
From here, it probably gets a little painful for the Syracuse faithful.
The Cuse drove to the Tennessee 24 but got no closer, and a field goal cut the lead to 31-30. Then Tee Martin fumbled at the Syracuse 41, and the Orangemen jumped on it with five minutes to play, needing only a field goal to get the lead.
Syracuse drove to the Tennessee two yard line and ate three minutes off the clock...but couldn't get in. A glorified extra point put Syracuse ahead 33-31, but it gave Tee Martin and the Vol offense one more opportunity.
Jamal Lewis got the drive started right with a 14 yard run, but three plays later it was 4th and 7 at the UT 35, setting up this game's most famous play.
With 1:48 on the clock, Syracuse blitzed but Tennessee picked it up, and Martin fired downfield for Cedrick Wilson at the 45 yard line. Wilson was hit from behind as the ball arrived and fell incomplete...and a full two seconds go by before a penalty marker went flying.
Watching this play again, I still think it is technically pass interference - the defender arrives and makes contact with Wilson, starting to knock him down from behind before the ball gets there. However, where I sympathize completely with Syracuse fans is that often in such a bang-bang situation, the referees will hold their flags because it's too close to call.
(This is where Syracuse fans will say that it would be deceiving if I didn't mention that it was an SEC officiating crew.)
In those two seconds between the incompletion and the flag, there was a quick realization - that Peyton wasn't here to save us, that we really had taken a step back, and that things just weren't going to be as good or as easy as they had been. And then the flag showed up to put those thoughts on hold...and then the team kept them there for the rest of the game, and the rest of the season.
The Vols got 15 yards and a first down on the call, and the drive - and the dream season none of us knew was out there - was still alive.
From there, Martin again made the most of his nine completions, hitting Peerless Price in traffic for 17 yards. The Vols were probably in Jeff Hall's range at this point, but Jamal Lewis made sure, bursting through the middle with a run to the 10 yard line. The Vols called timeout with :04 left, and Jeff Hall, senior from Winchester, came on from 27 yards out to win it, and the captain put her right down the middle. John Ward made it official: "Tennessee wins."
It wasn't an exclamation, but it was an emphatic statement: inexperience, hostile environment, Donovan McNabb, and yes, a fortutious flag...but the Vols had found a way to get the job done. Tennessee 34 - Syracuse 33.
The Orangemen didn't let this one keep them down for long - they ambushed defending National Champion Michigan in Ann Arbor 38-28 the following week, en route to the Big East title.
Quite simply, the Orange were thisclose to beating the eventual National Champion in a fantastically-played game. But the fact is, they didn't. Sketchy pass interference call or not, it was an L for a Syracuse team that was in a position to make major headway into the top ten. Couple a win in this game with the win the following week at Michigan and Syracuse likely would have been a top five team. That doesn't mean they would have beaten NC State and West Virginia en route to playing for the national title but...it could have.
Tennessee, of course, went on to bigger and better things in 1998...