The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #1: The National Championship

Tennessee Football is a story, written afresh each fall in a new chapter.  And while some chapters have greater significance than others, they all serve to move the story forward.  The story for each of us begins when our own lives become affected by it, and we follow it from then on in the hopes that, as it brings us heartbreak and joy along the way, one day it will carry us to the perfect ending.

Tennessee won its first undisputed National Championship in 1951, though there are others the university claims before then.  But for most who follow the Vols today, our stories begin much later.  For 47 years, while our stories carried with them moments of greatness found in names like Doug Dickey, Condridge Holloway and Reggie White, the ending was never quite perfect. 

I was born in 1981, and like many from East Tennessee my connection to the story probably began as soon as I was old enough to process it.  The story moved forward, with a Sugar Bowl special against Miami and a Miracle at South Bend.  And still, we waited...we hoped for the ultimate prize.

Phillip Fulmer's connection to the Tennessee Football story is also in his blood, both from his Winchester roots and from his time on the offensive line.  He helped the story move forward as an assistant and an offensive coordinator.  But his greatest contribution came when it was time for a new author, and Fulmer took control.  He wove Peyton Manning into the narrative and continued to progress the story forward, with each chapter becoming more significant.  With tradition as the program's foundation and Fulmer at the helm, the Tennessee Football story was at its finest.  We were just missing the one final piece of the puzzle.

This is that story. 

1. 1998:  #1 Tennessee 23 - #2 Florida State 16 (BCS National Championship - Fiesta Bowl)

There's only one thing left to do

When the Vols finally beat Florida in September of 1998, the immediate sentiment among those in Big Orange Country was, quite simply, "We're going to the National Championship Game."

We'd already done everything else.  Beating Florida had been the only obstacle we couldn't overcome for the last three years, and with the Gators vanquished we were certain we wouldn't be stopped.

Consider this:  between an October 1994 loss to Alabama and a November 1999 loss to Arkansas, the Vols went 1-4 against Florida.  They went 37-0 against the rest of the SEC.

We already knew how to do everything else.  And for the next eleven glorious weeks, Tennessee would prove it.  Lose Jamal Lewis for the season and be underdogs at Georgia the very next week?  No problem.  Alabama playing spoiler?  Nope.  And if you weren't a believer in destiny yet, Arkansas converted you.  All this added up to an 11-0 regular season, a number one ranking, and a spot in the SEC Championship Game.  And on a day when the rest of the college football world was turned on its head, the Vols won anyway, capturing their second straight SEC title and leaving no doubt:  Tennessee was going to the Fiesta Bowl.

The events of that December Saturday would, however, make things a little more complicated once we got there.

 

Florida State Football in the 90s

The defining image of college football in the 90s was the garnet and gold, the spear, and Bobby Bowden in that stupid hat.  Florida State was the preseason #1 in the 1991 AP poll.  From then until September 23, 2001, the Noles were never ranked lower than 11th.

They won the big prize in 1993 and played for another in 1996, and if not for a couple of wide rights and Tom Osborne, would've had more.  They were the best, everybody knew they were the best, and no one knew they were the best more than they did.

So that was why it was so jarring in the second week of the season to watch NC State beat them 24-7.

I was at a wedding - because all good brides get married on UT's bye week - and I remember standing at the reception with a bunch of other guys in disbelief, watching the Wolfpack pad their lead.  No one did that to Florida State in the 90s.  No one.

The Noles spent the rest of 1998 playing catch-up, getting fortunate bounces to beat the Gators and give themselves a chance in the BCS race.  And when UCLA and Kansas State were both upset on Championship Saturday, Florida State found enough points to finish second in the BCS, and would join the Vols in Tempe.

The Noles had Peter Warrick, an all-everything wide receiver who was universally praised.  But they'd lost Chris Weinke, who went down with a neck injury in November.  This put their National Championship destiny in the hands of Marcus "The Rooster" Outzen.  Outzen had led the Noles over the Gators in the season finale, and had played mistake-free football.  With Warrick and FSU's defense - statistically the nation's best - many assumed the Noles needed only average play from Outzen to win.  Tennessee was the undefeated SEC Champion...but Florida State was a six point favorite.

My Dad and I got tickets and headed west for the game after an eleven hour delay in the Louisville, KY airport that made me question my faith the day before the game.  On gameday in Tempe - sunny and 72 on January 4 - the Florida State pride was on full display.  A number of their fans were condescending to our faces without trying to be:  "Great season you guys had.  You should know it's a real honor just to make it here."  They weren't even trying to be mean.  They were just being Florida State.  So it's Tennessee's destiny against Florida State's aura.  80,000+ pack Sun Devil Stadium, and millions more are tuned in around the world to watch the very first BCS National Championship Game.  There can be only one.

 

Mistakes We Don't Usually Make

The storybook scenario we were all envisioning for this game goes out the window on the first drive, a three and out that has to make Randy Sanders - in his first playcalling environment with David Cutcliffe now recruiting in Oxford - feel really special.  When Florida State roughs the punter to breathe new life into the drive, Tee Martin hits Peerless Price and then scrambles for another first down.

Again, Florida State's defense is a statistical behemoth:  first nationally in passing and total defense, second in rushing and scoring defense.  Points being at a premium, it really hurts when Jeff Hall caps off the drive by shanking a 32 yarder.

Penalties continue to be the theme for the Noles, backing them up on their first drive and giving Tennessee a second shot to strike first...but Travis Henry fumbles it away at the FSU 35.  Two drives, two mistakes that make you think that maybe destiny is still asleep.

The two teams trade punts, and we're settled in for a defensive slugfest as the first quarter nears its close...

 

"We're gonna kill these guys!"

That all changes from the Tennessee 12, where Randy Sanders dials up play action, and Tee Martin fires one for Peerless Price, who beats his man and comes up with a huge play, from the UT 12 to the FSU 12.  From there, the drive stalls as the game moves to the second quarter, and Jeff Hall hits a field goal...but once again, there's laundry on the field.  The Noles rough the kicker, and Keith Jackson says "There are some very old truths in this game.  One is don't take points off the scoreboard.  The other is, don't rough the kicker." 

The Vols roll the dice and take the penalty - Florida State's fourth 15 yarder in the first half - looking to trade 3 for 7.  On second and goal, the Vols go with old faithful:  play action pass to the fullback, and Martin hits Shawn Bryson for six and our first score of the game.  Vols lead 7-0.

Florida State's first play of the ensuing drive is a strike to Ron Duggans at midfield, and we're all thinking they're going to respond quickly.  Again, it's been Peter Warrick who's been the talk of the town all week, and we've been told that Tennessee has no one who can cover him.

From midfield, Outzen makes up his mind that he's going to throw to Warrick.  And Dwayne Goodrich makes him pay.

Goodrich steps in front of the out route, and once he's got the pick there's nothing but green in front of him.  #23 races back 54 yards for the score, and just like that a scoreless defensive battle has become 14-0 Vols.

When Florida State goes three and out on the ensuing drive, highlighted by a sack from Raynoch Thompson, everyone wearing orange is two seconds away from boundless optimism mode, and I'm envisioning a celebratory blowout.

But then Tee Martin is intercepted, Florida State runs it back to the five yard line and scores three plays later.

The Vols do block the extra point, but Florida State threatens again on the final drive of the first half.  Dwayne Goodrich is involved in an end zone deflection that will also end his night with an ankle sprain.  Florida State has to settle for three, making it 14-9 heading to the locker room...but raising questions about who will defend Warrick.

 

The Battle of Field Position

After Keith Jackson steals John Ward's thunder by retiring (only to return and stay in business until 2005), we're ready to start the second half.

The third quarter is all field position, with several threats quickly snuffed out by both defenses.  Florida State's defense may have had more hype...but as usual in 1998, Tennessee's defense would be the best one on the field. 

The first three drives of the quarter are all three and outs before Tennessee makes progress, moving to the Florida State 38.  Facing 4th and 4, Fulmer elects to punt and the Vols pin the Noles back at the 9.  Then Florida State gets hot and moves to the UT 30 before a Billy Ratliff sack kills that drive, but they pin the Vols at their own 5.

The Vols come off their own goal line with three straight completions from Tee Martin, moving into FSU territory.  However, the Vols cannot convert on third down, and when Jermaine Copeland drops one Tennessee moves to 0 for 9 on 3rd down for the night.  This time, David Leaverton pins the Noles at the 1, and we go to the 4th quarter, still 14-9.

With Florida State unable to escape the shadow of their own end zone, they punt and Tennessee starts with 1st and 10 at the Florida State 35.  With the way our defense was playing, you felt like one more touchdown would do it, and here was our chance.  Tee Martin feels it too, and on the first play of the drive he fires for the end zone...into double coverage, where he's picked off by Dexter Jackson.

Now it's Florida State on the move, suddenly finding big holes in the Tennessee defense:  Duggans for 10, Travis Minor running for 20 more, then Minor for a dozen more and a wicked stiff arm on Deon Grant, and suddenly Florida State has 1st and 10 at the UT 26 with 13:00 to play, still trailing 14-9 but now in range of the lead.

 

To The Finish

And then the Tennessee defense bowed its neck, and Florida State will get no closer.

Minor runs for no gain on first down.  No gain on second down.  And after an FSU false start penalty forces 3rd and 15, Darwin Walker blows up the FSU offensive line and sacks Outzen.  Florida State's offense had 1st and 10 at the 26 and will leave the field with 4th and 26.  They punt into the end zone for a touchback.  On the sideline, Peter Warrick - 1 catch, 7 yards - throws a tantrum for all the ABC cameras to see.

Still at 14-9, you're watching the clock tick.  The Vols run twice to open the drive and get one yard.  Facing 3rd and 9 at the 21 with 9:30 to play, you're thinking about survival.  Can we keep Florida State out of the end zone if we keep playing field position?  Is 14 points enough?  We're not thinking about scoring again from this position...

So Tee Martin drops back, and Florida State isn't thinking about Tennessee scoring from here either.  They send seven expecting another run, but this time they won't get to Martin.  With Peerless on the go route down the right sideline, Tee simply steps back and lets her fly.

Few Tennessee quarterbacks have thrown a better deep ball than Martin.  We were sitting in the upper deck on this sideline, watching it hang in the air for several seconds, then looking down and seeing #37 as the intended target.  With this combination, only good things followed.

FSU DB Mario Edwards mistimed his jump, and Peerless made the catch and kept his balance...and there would be no catching him.  Price ran out the last of the 79 yards the play covered, finishing in the end zone, the deep ball giving Tennessee a huge 20-9 lead.  Because who doesn't want to win the National Championship on a long bomb, the most exciting play in your offensive arsenal?

It was the Vols' first third down conversion of the game.

FSU returned the favor by blocking the extra point, but before you had time to process how great the last play was, Tennessee did something good again:  Shaun Ellis stripped Outzen on FSU's first play, with Billy Ratliff recovering.  Though the Vols would get only three out of it, now the lead was 23-9 with only six minutes to play.  Six minutes to the National Championship.

Those who like to indulge themselves in prevent defense conversations might want to add this game to the list.  Florida State's only touchdown of the night, at this point, came on a drive that started at the UT five yard line.  But thanks to soft coverage and penalties, Florida State scores here on an Outzen run with 3:42 to play to make it 23-16.  And we're not done yet.

The Noles go for the onside kick, and Sebastian Janikowski's only crime on an otherwise perfect kick is his massive 250 lb frame; the ball glances off his thigh on its initial bounce, denying Florida State the recovery with a penalty flag, and giving the Vols a chance to run out the clock.

Tennessee gets eight yards on first down, but two Travis Henry runs produce only an additional yard.  Florida State takes their first timeout with 2:07 to play, 4th and 1 at the FSU 33.  A 50 yard field goal attempt would put the lead back to two possessions, but Fulmer says go for it, and Randy Sanders is no fool:  play action pass to the fullback again, works like a charm again:  Bryson for the first down.

Time to celebrate, right?

Wrong.  On the next play, Martin and Henry botch a handoff, the ball comes out to an audible "OOOHHH!" from the UT faithful, and Florida State jumps on it.  It is the fourth Tennessee turnover of the night, and it gives the ball back to Florida State with 1:29 to play, down only a touchdown, for one last chance.

It lasted one play.

Outzen fires deep over the middle, where his pass is tipped by Deon Grant, and then intercepted by Steve Johnson.  Johnson took over Peter Warrick duties when Goodrich was injured, and Warrick never caught another pass.  The Rooster finishes 9 of 22 with 2 INTs.

One first down will seal it.  Tee Martin runs two keepers for a yard, burning FSU's final timeouts.  On 3rd and 9, Travis Stephens gets the corner for 8, and Florida State gets his facemask for the rest.  The flag flies, the chains move...and suddenly, things are becoming very real.

A night that was supposed to belong to Peter Warrick and Florida State's defense ends up going home with Peerless Price (4 catches, 199 yards, MVP) and the Tennessee Defense.  And for all of Florida State's aura and talent...Tennessee's destiny would not be denied.

Tee Martin takes a knee, and then it becomes inevitable.  In Tempe, my eyes are glued to the scoreboard after I check with my Dad and make sure we're not still stuck at the airport.  But we're not...and it's real.  And now a much younger looking Phillip Fulmer is getting a Tostitos bath, and Peerless Price is mocking the Tomahawk Chop, and the scoreboard ticks to three...two...one...

And the National Champion, as John Ward would say...is clad...in Big Orange.  Tennessee 23 - Florida State 16.

 

Aftermath

Grown men are crying.  One of my Dad's friends that I barely knew came up to me - and I'll always remember this - and said "I've been waiting my whole life for this!  You're 17 years old...appreciate this."

The story had come true for all of us.

While Phillip Fulmer is holding up that giant crystal football, we have some fun at ESPN's expense.  The College GameDay crew had ducked Knoxville all year, in fear of retaliation for Chris Fowler's comments about Tennessee fans being "trailer trash" after we reacted negatively when Charles Woodson won the Heisman.  They didn't show for Florida, then inconceivably stayed home for the Arkansas game.  But there was no running or hiding from us here.  They had a protective net around the set, but that didn't stop some of the more unruly Vol fans from hurling beverages over it.  During a commercial break, one came very close to Lee Corso's head, and Vol fans chanted "THIRSTY!  THIRSTY!  THIRSTY!"

And somewhere down on the field, Al Wilson finally relaxed his forehead muscles.  Probably.  Somewhere in the locker room, John Ward's football career came to a quiet and perfect end.  And everyone wearing orange is living joy.

Phillip Fulmer carried the story to its ultimate ending...but it's not only this chapter that defines him.  He would continue to carry the story forward for another ten years after this, and while there may not have been other nights holding other crystal footballs, Fulmer is so woven into the Tennessee story that his legacy is and will be remembered for all of his efforts, not just this one.

It's our story, on some level, all of us:  players, coaches, fans.  Fulmer has written others, and the Vols will now write the newest chapter without him in just five weeks.  And maybe one day we'll write one with a similar ending.  But for now, we remember this one best:  a team with no stars but lots of heart survived Donovan McNabb, finally beat the Gators, took care of the rest and then went out to the desert...and came home with the National Championship.

The story of Tennessee Football moves on.  It demands that we embrace the present.  But it asks that we not forget the past.  Because Phillip Fulmer - on this night and on many, many others - gave us our happy ending.

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