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The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #20: No Jamal, No Problem

In October 1994, Tennessee lost to Alabama 17-13 in the final seconds.  In November 1999, Tennessee lost at Arkansas 28-24 in the final seconds.

In between those two losses, the Vols went 1-4 against Florida.  They went 37-0 against the rest of the SEC.

So when the Vols picked up their one win against Florida during that span in 1998, the mindset of the entire program - from players and coaches to fans and even the local media - was that the Vols were going all the way.  Because we'd already done everything else.

The enthusiasm surrounding the Vols' dramatic wins over Syracuse and Florida to open the '98 season (both still to come in our countdown) lasted all of one game and one quarter.

The Vols blew out Houston 42-7 in the third game of the season, then went to Auburn and jumped to a 17-0 lead on the Tigers in the first quarter.

Then the complexion changed completely.

Jamal Lewis left the Auburn game in the second quarter with a knee injury on a relatively innocent looking play.  The defense held on as the offense went into the fetal position in the second half in a 17-9 win.  But the news the following week was anything but innocent:  Lewis had torn his ACL, and was done for the season.  In Knoxville, things had taken a turn for the worse.

In Baton Rouge on the same Saturday, things appeared to have taken a turn for the better for the Georgia Bulldogs.  Going up against #6 LSU, true freshman Quincy Carter turned in a sensational debut:  27 of 34, 318 yards passing and 41 yards rushing, and two touchdowns in a 28-27 Georgia upset win.  Having disposed of the Tigers, and with the Vols now depleted after already beating the Gators, suddenly Georgia looked like the team to beat as the calendar turned to October.

With Carter was WR/DB Champ Bailey, basking in the glow of Charles Woodson's Heistman the previous season.  The Dawgs would host the Vols the following week, a matchup of two undefeated top ten teams, with Georgia playing the role of favorite.  The Vols would have to trust their offense to a still-learning Tee Martin and a pair of completely untested sophomores in Travis Stephens and Travis Henry, while the Dawgs appeared to have found their savior in Carter.  With Georgia hungry to end a seven game losing streak against the Vols, everything appeared to be pointing in Georgia's direction.

Instead, this became the game that proved the '98 Vols were no fluke, but a legitimate national championship contender.  What Tennessee did on this day was arguably their most impressive performance of the National Championship run.

20. 1998:  #4 Tennessee 22 - #7 Georgia 3 (Athens)

The Vol offense struggled as everyone expected them to early.  Tee Martin hadn't exactly set the world on fire with his arm at this point, and without Jamal Lewis the Vols appeared to be going nowhere fast. 

But the legendary status the '98 Vol defense would eventually earn reached its climax on this day:  playing with all that inexperience on offense, they completely shut down a Georgia team that had looked so dangerous just seven days earlier.

Jeff Hall put the Vols up 3-0 in the first quarter, and the two teams traded fumbles at one exchange that produced no points.  Happ Hines would nail a 48 yard field goal late in the first to tie the score.

Jeff Hall again did the work in the second quarter, putting the Vols ahead 6-3, and then watching Tee Martin do a little foreshadowing with a late drive into field goal range that put the Vols up 9-3 at the half.  It was a field goal kicking war, but the assumption was that neither offense was going to get untracked in the second half either, and any one mistake could turn the game.

Instead, David Cutcliffe began to open up more of the passing game for Martin, beginning with the opening drive of the second half.  Behind Martin's arm, the Vols marched straight downfield, then got a crucial scramble from Tee to move the ball to first and goal.  From there, Cedrick Wilson beat Champ Bailey to the corner and got a foot down, and the Vols led 15-3.

When the Vols intercepted Quincy Carter on the very next drive, that old familiar feeling began to creep over Bulldog fans.  This would eventually be the second of three consecutive seasons that the Vols faced a top ten undefeated Bulldog squad, and beat it by three possessions or more.

Tee Martin continued to play mistake free, finishing the day 16 of 26 for 156 yards and 2 TDs.  Quincy Carter, on the other hand, found the honeymoon had ended in Louisiana.  Carter was sacked four times and hit countless others, and as Georgia found themselves down two possessions in the second half, his arm couldn't save them.  Just one week after his incredible 27 of 34 day in Baton Rouge, Carter went 14 of 37 against the Vols.  The ground game offered no help, as the Vols held Georgia to a mere 59 yards rushing on the day.

With Martin gaining confidence with each snap, the Vols put the dagger in late in the third quarter, Martin to Peerless Price for a touchdown that made it 22-3 Vols.

From there, Tennessee continued to prove that they might be okay after all even without Jamal Lewis:  Travis Stephens finished the day with 107 yards, and Travis Henry added 53 as Tennessee continued to dictate the pace of the game to Georgia.

By the time Georgia fired their last interception to Deon Grant, Tennessee's 90's chokehold on this series was tangible:  eight straight wins over the Dawgs, a streak they would make nine the following season.  Georgia never beat Tennessee in the 90's.

For Quincy Carter's career, it's interesting to note that arguably his best performance in a Georgia uniform was his first notable one, seven days prior against LSU.  He never reached the potential that everyone saw in him on that day, and never played at such a high level in his remaining seasons in Athens, and never got the Dawgs to what would have been their first SEC Championship Game.

But for the '98 season, this was the day when Tennessee made the rest of the nation take notice:  the Vols weren't lucky, they weren't a fluke, and even with a still-learning quarterback and without their Heisman candidate in the backfield, this defense and this team was good enough to get the job done.  Whatever doubts Lewis's injury had created were instantly erased on this day, and the entire program went back to believing what the nation at large could now start buying into: 

The Vols could go all the way.