Of the four games left on our countdown, there are two that I've never gone back and watched. And in both cases, it wasn't because what happened on the field was particularly heartbreaking...it was more about what we lost in the grand scheme. Losses like today's game stay with you even if you can't recall every important play off the top of your head. Because we were this close to a National Championship...and we let it get away. Everyone remembers what happened in the Georgia Dome in 2001 with greater clarity, because we were even closer then. But two years earlier, had the Vols not slipped up in Fayetteville, only Kentucky and Vanderbilt stood in the way of a rematch with Florida State, and a chance to repeat.
Instead, whatever you want to call the forces that conspired against Clint Stoerner in 1998 decided to even the odds in 1999.
It's fitting, then, that both this game and its predecessor come in at #4 on their respective lists: last summer we called the 1998 Arkansas game the fourth best win of the Phillip Fulmer era, and you'll want to come back and read that to stop the depression of remembering the 1999 Arkansas game. Both games serve as prologue to one of the great truths of the SEC in the last ten years: Houston Nutt does more with less, and less with more, than anybody in college football.
Nutt's first year at Arkansas was 1998, inheriting a team that had gone 4-7 the two previous years. He got them to 8-0 before they came to Knoxville, which means they were legitimate National Championship contenders. Boundless optimists and fans of Derek Dooley, take heart. Arkansas lost the heartbreaker in Knoxville, and didn't get over it in time to beat Mississippi State the next week, which meant the Bulldogs took the division, and the Razorbacks' rematch with Tennessee would have to wait until next year.
4. 1999: Arkansas 28 - #3 Tennessee 24 (Fayetteville)
In '99, Arkansas started the season ranked #22, and many of the same faces returned on offense: Stoerner at QB, Anthony Lucas - who torched the Vols like no receiver I've seen before or since in 1998 - and a young freshman named Cedric Cobbs also entered the fray at tailback. The SEC West was considered to be wide open, and the Arkansas faithful, I'm sure, believed Houston Nutt would take them to the promised land after such a great start.
But on consecutive weekends early in the season, Arkansas ran into trouble on the road. In late September, Alabama beat the Hogs 35-28 in Tuscaloosa; the Tide would eventually win the SEC Championship in '99, no real shame here. But the following week in Lexington, a Kentucky team that no one gave a chance without Tim Couch beat Arkansas 31-20 behind Dusty Bonner's four touchdown passes. It was still early October, but the dreams of championships in Fayetteville were dead.
Arkansas beat South Carolina and Auburn by a combined 72-24 in late October, but then got trounced by Ole Miss 38-16 the week before they played the Vols. That left the Hogs at 5-3, a disappointment on the year...and no real threat to the Tennessee juggernaut.
The Best of Times
That's what we were, at this point in history. After winning it all in 1998, the Vols stubbed their toe against Florida 23-21 in The Swamp, and after Tiger High scared us to death in a 17-16 "just say no to orange pants" game, Tennessee went on the warpath.
The Vols shut out Auburn 24-0, then beat #10 Georgia 37-20. In the last Third Saturday matchup to feature both teams in the Top 10, the #4 Vols went to Tuscaloosa and beat #10 (and eventual SEC Champion) Alabama 21-7 in a game that wasn't that close. And after beating South Carolina 30-7, the Vols got a very enjoyable 38-14 win over #24 Notre Dame in Knoxville.
The win over the Irish was even more enjoyable because of what happened earlier in the day. On the first Saturday of November, only three undefeated teams remained in college football: #1 Florida State, #2 Penn State, and #3 Virginia Tech. The Vols were #4, first among the one loss teams. At home against Minnesota, Penn State came out on the wrong end of a crazy 4th and 16 play (watch from 1:24 here if you're curious...hey Mike Slive, can we get a deal with Hulu?) that led to a game-winning field goal for the Golden Gophers.
I was a freshman at UT staying in North Carrick; when that 4th down play happened, and again when the field goal went through, Presidential Courtyard exploded, with people pouring out of every dorm who'd all been watching in their rooms. The Vols blew out the Irish later that night, and we went to #3 in the polls the next morning. Even better: thanks to Virginia Tech's weak strength of schedule playing in the Big East and the old BCS formula that heavily emphasized it, the Vols vaulted past the Hokies into the #2 spot in the BCS. Tennessee now controlled its own destiny for the National Championship; even if VT won out, their SOS rating (which ended up 53rd in the nation) would not be good enough to pass the Vols.
It created an interesting scenario: right behind Tennessee was Florida, whose only loss was to Alabama in overtime. But even if the Gators didn't lose again and won the SEC East, they still had to play #1 Florida State at the end of the regular season. So either Florida State would knock them out of National Championship contention...or, if the Gators beat the Noles and then won the SEC Championship Game, we would've had Florida vs. Tennessee for the National Championship. On a neutral field with plenty of time to make sure Alex Brown didin't have the snap count? I liked our chances. And we wanted this outcome very, very badly.
(What actually happened, aside from UT's loss here: Florida lost 30-23 to Florida State, and then went sleepwalking to the Georgia Dome, where Alabama hit them with a 34-7 wake-up call. FSU beat Michael Vick and Virginia Tech to win the National Championship.)
And I know I've used this stat more than any other on this website, but I'll continue to bring it up unapologetically: between an October 1994 loss to Alabama and this point in mid-November 1999, the Vols went 1-4 against Florida and 37-0 against the rest of the SEC. Tennessee in the mid-to-late-90s walked onto the field every Saturday knowing that if the other team wasn't Florida, we were going to win. As mentioned earlier, the Vols ran through a difficult schedule in the middle of the 1999 season with incredible, joyful, and familiar ease.
The '99 team is one of the most talented in school history. We now had a clear path to the National Championship game, even if we didn't win the SEC East. And we were so used to beating everyone but Florida, we assumed it was locked up: beat 5-3 Arkansas, beat Kentucky, and beat Vanderbilt...and you're defending your title, possibly against the Gators.
The only thing that stood in the way was, of course, Clint Stoerner and the football gods.
Waiting for what always happens to happen
The morning of the game, a writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel does one of these "here's all the reasons Arkansas should win, but I'm picking Tennessee anyway" stories. This too is what it was like to follow the Vols in the mid-to-late-90s: even when karma and letdown alerts say otherwise, you just don't pick against Tennessee unless they're playing Florida.
The game itself is relegated to JP Sports, which shows you how seriously all of us were taking it. Two minutes in, a Tee Martin pass is deflected high into the air, and Arkansas corner David Barrett picks it up and runs 43 yards for the touchdown. The Arkansas faithful, I'm sure, immediately smell blood. The Tennessee faithful are not worried.
The game moves to the second quarter at 7-3, and we're finding life tougher than usual: Arkansas is stacked up to stop the dynamic duo of Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry. Jamal, frankly, had eased his foot off the accelerator since the loss to Florida, perhaps fearful of another injury, and perhaps knowing that even giving less than 100%, the Vols were going to win. Travis Henry picked up the slack, and would again outrush Jamal on this day (12 for 79 for Henry, 19 for 47 for Lewis). But the Razorbacks were determined to make Tee Martin beat them...and the '99 Vols were usually good enough to win in any number of ways, so again, we weren't worried. Martin led us downfield, and Jamal dove over the top to put Tennessee in front, 10-7.
One of the real keys to this game was Arkansas' ability to respond immediately. Stoerner led the troops back downfield in a hurry, helped along by Cobbs, who had an eye-opening 107 yards on only 15 carries. Arkansas scored to make it 14-10...but the Vols came right back on their next drive to make it 17-14 on a beautiful run by Tee Martin. Offense wasn't the problem: on the day, the Vols ran for 169 and Tee passed for 311, and the Vols outgained Arkansas by more than 100 yards. So we went to the locker room, 17-14. No worries.
In the third quarter, it finally happened: Travis Henry broke free from 28 yards away, and with 8:46 to go in the quarter, the Vols led 24-14. We had our cushion, we'd taken their best shot in the first half, and now we could really relax. This game was over.
Arkansas, again, responded immediately.
Writing a new script
Stoerner had gone to Anthony Lucas again in this game, and Lucas again made life miserable for the Vol secondary. But just 2:44 after Henry's touchdown, Stoerner went deep for Boo Williams, with Dwayne Goodrich in single coverage thanks to Lucas. Goodrich had some fantastic moments in his Tennessee career. None of them were against Arkansas.
53 yards later, Arkansas was back in it at 24-21, still a quarter and a half to play.
Again, Arkansas couldn't stop us. Immediately we drove back to the Arkansas red zone with three minutes to play in the third. But then, Tee Martin got hit and fumbled, and Arkansas recovered. Hmmm...
In the fourth quarter, the Arkansas defense came to life. Still at 24-21 midway through, Travis Henry was stopped cold on a third and short run, forcing a Tennessee punt. Backed up inside their own 20, the Arkansas drive started with a great catch by Lucas that gave them the deadly combination of breathing room and momentum. Crossing midfield, Cobbs broke off a 15 yard run that moved Arkansas down inside the UT 25 with 5:00 to play. From the 23, the Vols blitzed but did not get Stoerner...and he found Lucas one more time on a post route, again beating Goodrich, and Arkansas led 28-24 with 3:44 to play.
And for the first time since the previous encounter with the Hogs, we had to deal with the possibility of losing to an SEC team that wasn't named Florida.
But again, here we came downfield. And as Tennessee moved to the Arkansas red zone with less than two minutes to play, you could feel the anxiety through the television: for Arkansas, would their hearts be broken by Tennessee one more time? And for us, were we really going to throw away a golden opportunity for another National Championship?
The drive stalled at the 17 yard line, and the Vols faced 4th and 6 with 90 seconds to play. The Vols elected to go for it all, and Martin showed great pocket presence. He fired for the back of the end zone...and it was there. But the pass sailed high, and incomplete. And suddenly, it was over.
No more miracles. No more fumbles. And no more hope. Arkansas gained revenge by the exact same score, 28-24.
For Stoerner - 18 of 28 for 228 yards, and three huge touchdown passes - it had to be sweet. Arkansas may not have had the opportunity to play for a championship with this win, but his pain was certainly eased.
For us, there was no such comfort.
A Cracked Aura of Invincibility
In 1997, the Vols lost only to Florida, still won the SEC East, then beat Auburn to win the SEC Championship Game. We went to the Orange Bowl at #3, playing #2 Nebraska, knowing that if #1 Michigan lost in the Rose Bowl, we could win the National Championship.
In 1998, we did just that.
In 1999, here we were again, playing on the second Saturday in November with our National Championship destiny in our own hands. And again: no SEC team but Florida had beaten us since 1994. Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt were on the other side. We simply weren't used to losing. We had this...and then, it was gone. No repeat. No championships. Nothing.
The Vols beat Kentucky and Vandy to earn an at-large bid to the BCS, and a rematch with Nebraska. And perhaps too many of our guys were thinking about the NFL, or perhaps it's just what Nebraska did to us in the 90s, but the Cornhuskers won 31-21 in a game that wasn't that close.
The following year was time to rebuild, and LSU and Georgia put additional cracks in our aura. And after it went through both ups and downs in a crazy 2001 season that we'll get to, it was broken for good in 2002. And we haven't gotten it back.
It may not have been fully broken until LSU in 2001 or Ron Zook in 2002. But that process started on this day, when our stranglehold on the rest of the SEC was broken, and our chance to repeat as National Champions came to a sudden, bitter end.