Note: with Joel at SEC Media Days this week, we want to devote all of our time to those festivities Wednesday-Friday. So we'll conclude this series next week with a look at the Top 3, and one final retrospective piece on the whole list.
On November 7, 1998, #2 Tennessee was finishing off a 37-13 homecoming victory over UAB. But in the game's final moments, the collective attention of the Neyland Stadium crowd turned north, where #1 Ohio State was locked in a tight one with Michigan State.
The moment dates itself now, as eleven years ago there were no Blackberries or text alerts to your cell phones to tell you the number one team in the country might be going down. Instead, it was the old reliable: crowd around anyone with a radio, and if you couldn't find one in your section, wait for the moment of spontaneous joy.
And just a few minutes after the final gun sounded in Knoxville, the moment came: pockets of cheering erupt all over Neyland Stadium, and Bobby Denton's voice comes over the PA to confirm it for us: the Buckeyes were intercepted on their final drive. Michigan State will win.
And come Monday, the Vols will be the #1 team in the nation for the first time in four decades.
Meanwhile, another SEC team has put together an undefeated season to this point, though they've flown much lower under the radar. A young coach named Houston Nutt is in his first year in Fayetteville, where Arkansas was coming off back to back 4-7 seasons prior to his arrival. He made the nation take notice with a 42-6 beatdown of #22 Alabama in late September, and then watched his team keep surviving: 27-20 over Tim Couch and Kentucky, 24-21 at Auburn, lots of little victories that added up to an 8-0 start...which only amounted to an appearance at #10 in the polls. So while Tennessee, Kansas State and UCLA found themselves in the top three...Arkansas found itself disrespected.
But a chance for instant credibility would present itself in Knoxville the very next week.
4. 1998: #1 Tennessee 28 - #10 Arkansas 24 (Knoxville)
"Everything...everything...is riding on this football game." - John Ward
In counting down these games, we've seen some great individual performances against the Vols along the way: Rex Grossman's 362 yard, 3 TD performance in 2001, Dennis Riddle's 196 yards rushing in 1996, Donovan McNabb almost getting it done on 22 of 28 for 300 yards, and Robert Edwards running for 155 yards in three quarters before being sidelined with an injury.
On this night, Arkansas WR Anthony Lucas would add his name to that list.
It is the best individual wide receiver performance I've ever seen against the Vols. It started on the opening drive, where Arkansas would convert a long bomb from QB Clint Stoerner (who, like Danny Wuerffel but for different reasons, has the pleasure of knowing that every UT fan knows how to spell his name) to Lucas for a score.
Then, on the first play of the second quarter, Lucas got the best of Dwayne Goodrich for 62 yards down the sideline and a 14-0 Razorback lead. When the Vols kicked a field goal, Arkansas again responded with more Lucas. His second touchdown catch of the first half gave Arkansas a 21-3 lead with 3:15 remaining in the second quarter.
Let's reflect, for a moment. After Donovan McNabb taught them a lesson in the opener, the legendary 1998 Tennessee Defense gave up 17 points to Florida, 7 to Houston, 9 to Auburn, 3 to Georgia, 18 to Alabama, 14 to South Carolina, and 13 to UAB.
Arkansas had 21 in the game's first 26 minutes, and the Vols had no answers for Lucas.
This game has become legendary for what happened in the last two minutes, and we'll get to that. But don't forget that with 3:15 left before halftime, everyone wearing orange was in total shock, and Arkansas - not Tennessee - looked like the dominant champion of the SEC.
So one of the biggest drives of the game unfolds in those final three minutes, with Tee Martin leading the troops downfield. Martin would struggle all day - 10 of 27 for 155 yards - but true to his nature, he made the throws he had to make. His 36 yard teardrop to Peerless Price in the back of the end zone gave both teams something to think about in the locker room, with the Vols still down 21-10.
Any thoughts of "we'll come out of the locker room and kill them!" were answered with more Lucas and an Arkansas field goal to open the third quarter. Lucas will finish with 8 catches for 172 yards and 2 TDs. Against the 98 Vol defense.
The Vols, however, would answer immediately.
The offensive line began to dictate the game to the Razorbacks at this point, with Travis Henry leading the Vols downfield and Tee Martin finishing it off from 4 yards out. Still in the third quarter, the Vols had sliced the lead to 24-17. Tennessee got close again on their next drive but had to settle for three, making it 24-20 as the game moved to the fourth quarter.
Now the rally was on and the go-ahead score seemed like a only a matter of time...but the Vols struggled to find it. And after trading punts, the clock began to be an issue. And when Arkansas finally got the offense going again and moved to the Tennessee 16 yard line, you knew that another touchdown would seal it.
But the defense held, and the Hogs set up a field goal attempt. And with 106,000 fans screaming "BLOCK THAT KICK!"...Deon Grant did.
The ball spun free and was recovered by Al Wilson, who raced back down the other way and gave the Vols all the momentum and excellent field position at the Arkansas 28. Surely, we had it now...
But the Vols instead went backwards. Stopped on third down, Phillip Fulmer elected to punt, and David Leaverton pinned the Hogs back at their own one yard line. Tennessee's defense kept them there, and on fourth down the snap of the punt went sailing over the head of the Razorback punter, who (illegally) kicked it out of the back of the end zone for a safety. 24-22 Arkansas, 2:56 to play.
Needing only a field goal to win, the Vols took the free kick and immediately picked up a first down to move into Arkansas territory. On first down, Travis Henry ran for one yard. Then Tee Martin threw an incompletion. Then he threw another one. And suddenly it was 4th and 9.
As Martin dropped back to throw (Ward: "Last chance, probably...") he looked for Peerless Price over the middle...but the pass was broken up on a solid defensive play, and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf. The Arkansas faithful erupted.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
It was our year, our destiny. We'd finally beaten Florida. We'd taken Manning's graduation, McNabb's best punch and Jamal's knee injury and still survived. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
The Vols had two timeouts remaining, meaning Arkansas needed one first down to seal it. If the defense held, the Vols would get the ball back with under a minute to play in terrible field position, with no timeouts. But there was still hope - remember, Arkansas wasn't trying to take a knee, they needed the first down.
So on second down with 1:47 to play, Clint Stoerner comes under center. And in two steps, he will write his name into the legend of the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers.
The title of this post comes from Sean McDonough, who called the game from CBS. But there remains no one, including me, who can tell the story of what happened next better than John Ward:
Some things, even eleven years later, simply do not disappoint.
Travis Henry wrote the best chapter of his Tennessee story on this night, which would ultimately end with the school's all-time career rushing record that he still holds. Though his life and his choices may not have been the best since, to us he'll always have this night.
Tennessee fans go crazy after some tried to fight each other in the concourse, because they left when Martin's 4th down pass fell incomplete but didn't get out of the stadium before Stoerner fumbled two plays later, and I've heard stories of the ensuing melee on the ramps. Years later we will tell this story with phrases like "I knew we had it the whole time" thrown in because we've forgotten about the 21-3 part and only remember Stoerner's fumble.
Arkansas fans, meanwhile, are breaking in The Clint Stoerner Face. We've got one too - I call it The Jabar Gaffney Face - only for use when something inexplicably heartbreaking happens at the last possible moment. You don't leave, you don't talk, you don't even get angry...you just stare off into some distant place, in hopes that whatever just happened couldn't possibly have happened in whatever place you're looking to, because there hopefully the rules of time and space still apply, and quarterbacks don't trip over offensive linemen.
It's the same expression every coach and player wearing white had during the final drive, and wearing that face there's no stopping Travis Henry.
Arkansas would still be hungover the following week, losing to Mississippi State and thus blowing their chance for a rematch in Atlanta. Clint Stoerner would get his revenge the following year, when Arkansas beat a Tennessee team ranked #2 in the BCS by the same 28-24 margin.
But on this night, Stoerner, Arkansas and destiny all belonged to the Vols. One way or another, in 1998, Tennessee was going to get the job done. Call it luck, destiny, whatever you want...the final score tells the greatest truth. Tennessee 28 - Arkansas 24.