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The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #10: Surviving Upset Saturday

As we enter the Top 10 of our countdown, we'll be spending the entire month of July finishing up our list.  Look for the next game on our countdown each Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the month.  And as always, we invite you to share your stories and memories of each of these contests in the comments...

In its first season, the BCS was in big trouble.

Tennessee claimed the top spot in the rankings on the first Sunday in November after Ohio State fell to Michigan State, and held on to finish the regular season a perfect 11-0.  But step for step with the Vols were two other undefeated teams:  Kansas State finally beat Nebraska, and in doing so captured the Big 12 North and finished at 11-0.  And Cade McNown led UCLA to a 10-0 regular season on his way to becoming the Pac-10's all time leader in total offense.  Three undefeated teams at the end of the regular season, and one big mess for the shiny new formula that was supposed to guarantee a National Champion.

Increasing the drama was the unique situation that saw all three teams in action on Championship Saturday as the calendar turned to December.  The Vols would play in their second straight SEC Championship Game, against #23 Mississippi State.  Kansas State would play in the Big 12 Championship Game, against #10 Texas A&M.  And in a makeup date from an early season game washed out by Hurricane Georges, UCLA traveled to face unranked Miami.

What followed was one of the wildest days in college football history.

Coming in, the Vols had the #1 spot in the BCS, and most believed that if Tennessee beat Mississippi State, they would remain atop the rankings, or at least fall no further than #2 and stay in the Fiesta Bowl.  But UCLA was behind them at #2 and trailed by only 0.04 points, and with the formula being brand new and strength of schedule being a huge factor (meaning Kansas State would receive a huge bump with a win), no one knew anything for sure.  In fact, the only way fans of any of the three teams could be sure of their reservations in Tempe would be for one of the other two to lose.

UCLA started things off with an early afternoon kickoff.  The Bruins' last loss had been in the second game of the 1997 season...interestingly, to the Vols, 30-24 in Pasadena.  Since then, UCLA had won 20 games in a row behind McNown. 

My Dad and I were driving to Atlanta for the SEC Championship during this one, so I didn't see it...but the box score and the recap suggests it was an all-time classic.  McNown would finish with 513 yards passing, 6 TDs and 0 INTs.  But Miami - who had been beaten 66-13 by Donovan McNabb and Syracuse the week before, the worst loss in the history of The U - had Edgerrin James.  He ran for a Big East record 299 yards and 3 TDs.  The total offense numbers in this game I've never seen anywhere else for a game that didn't go to overtime:  Miami 689 yards, UCLA 670 yards.

Still, the Bruins scored to go up 38-21 with 1:28 left in the third quarter, seemingly putting the game out of reach.  But Miami scored four touchdowns in the game's final sixteen minutes, going ahead 49-45 late.  UCLA drove to the Miami 29 on the game's final play, giving McNown one last chance for glory:   

(There's a terrific 10 year retrospective piece about this game from the OC Register)

When that happened, the caravan of Tennessee cars heading down I-75 started honking their horns in unison:  with UCLA down, now you knew for sure that destiny was in your own hands.  Win, and you're in.

10. 1998:  #1 Tennessee 24 - #23 Mississippi State 14 (SEC Championship Game)

Mississippi State wasn't even supposed to be here.  When the Vols narrowly and miraculously beat Arkansas on Clint Stoerner's "Hand of God" play three weeks earlier, the prevailing thought was that the Vols and Hogs would be seeing each other again in Atlanta.  But seven days after giving it away in Knoxville, Arkansas was still hungover against Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs stole a victory and the SEC West crown.  This remains MSU's only appearance in the 17 year history of the SEC Championship Game.

Having played in (and winning) their first SEC Championship Game the previous year against Auburn, Vol fans now descended on Atlanta with even more on the line, and facing a team with less tradition and more real estate between them and Atlanta, the Georgia Dome was 85% orange for an 8:00 PM kickoff.  Up in St. Louis, the Big 12 Championship Game kicked off a few hours earlier, but with UCLA down there was no need to scoreboard watch...

The 1998 SEC Championship Game is the finest performance by a John Chavis defense at Tennessee.  Mississippi State made one big offensive play on an option run in the first quarter, but shanked a field goal attempt and got no points.  It would be the last good thing their offense did all night.

However, the State defense was up to the task.  With the Vols facing third and long late in the first quarter, Tee Martin went deep for Peerless Price but overthew him just a hair, and Robert Bean made a great interception and then reversed his field twice on a 70 yard return for a touchdown.  7-0 Bulldogs.

Deon Grant's fifth interception of the year in the second quarter led to Travis Stephens going over the top, tying the score at 7-7.  Jeff Hall would add three more before the half to give the Vols a 10-7 lead at the break.

The Vols would continue to completely shut down MSU's offense and their young quarterback Wayne Madkin.  Between the dominance of the UT defense and the general tone of the 1998 season, you felt pretty safe about Tennessee's odds of winning, even with just a three point lead.

Stuck in the mud at 10-7 in the third quarter, scoreboard watchers again took note:  what was a 27-12 Kansas State lead at the start of the 4th quarter had turned into a 27-27 tie and overtime in the Big 12 Championship Game.  It was the second blown lead by an undefeated team on the day.  A few minutes later in the second overtime, our old friend Brandon Stewart - beaten out for the starting QB job by one Peyton Manning five years earlier before transferring to Texas A&M - turned 3rd and 17 into a dramatic reversal of fortune:

Stewart's improbable touchdown to Sirr Parker (one of the great college football names) put a dagger into Kansas State's National Championship plans.  And suddenly, thoughts in the Georgia Dome turned to a much more imposing threat:  the Vols, still clinging to their 10-7 lead, wouldn't be facing UCLA or Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, but either 10-1 Florida State or 10-1 Ohio State, whichever the BCS computers deemed more worthy.  The challenge suddenly seemed much bigger.

Of course, there was still business to attend to in Atlanta, but again, you felt so comfortable with our defense and our destiny.  Madkin was intercepted by Al Wilson in the third quarter, who ran it back for a touchdown and appeared to put the game away...but a block in the back penalty negated the touchdown, and Travis Henry fumbled on the ensuing offensive possession, keeping State in it.

We moved to the fourth quarter, still 10-7.  And still, State can do nothing.  On the night, the Tennessee defense will allow 84 yards passing and 65 yards rushing:  149 yards of total offense allowed in the SEC Championship Game, along with three turnovers.  It's the single most dominant Chavis performance I know of.

So when the Vols line up to punt with 9:00 to play near midfield, still up just 10-7, you're not worried.  The offense can do nothing, State's only points have come off an interception return, and surely, surely, there's no other way they can hurt us...  

Kevin Prentiss' tightrope act covered 83 yards, and suddenly, State was in front 14-10.  An interception return and a punt return was all they could muster, but with under nine to play...could it really be enough?

Because now you're thinking about the events of the day...UCLA in a stunning loss, Kansas State in a stunning loss.  And as much as you'd tried to push it out of your mind, with that punt return, the cards were on the table for the Vols to make it three for three on Upset Saturday.

They don't allow them to do it anymore without a fifteen yard unsportsmanlike penalty, but Mississippi State's kickoff coverage team used to do a little dance everytime they took the field...and it sounds stupid if you haven't seen it, but it was actually pretty cool, and after Prentiss' return, theirs was especially vibrant on this night.

Down 14-10 with under nine to play, David Cutcliffe - in his final game for the Vols before leaving to become head coach at Ole Miss - decided he'd seen just about enough.  On the ensuing drive, Tee Martin hit Jermaine Copeland for a first down, and Travis Stephens immediately ran for another.  At the State 41 yard line, Cutcliffe called for play action, and Tee Martin made perhaps the best throw of his career:  staying in the pocket, letting one fly down the left sideline just in time before absorbing a huge hit from a linebacker, and then watching Peerless Price do a little tightrope action of his own, working in the tight space between the sideline and the defender to haul it in in the end zone.  John Ward:  "SIX...BIG...POINTS."

The Vols were back on top 17-14 with still over six minutes to play.  You knew the defense had kept them quiet all night and figured they'd do the same.  And as State began their drive at their own 30, it took only took one play to shut them up for good:  DT Corey Terry blasted Madkin, and Eric Westmoreland eventually recovered the fumble at the State 26.

The Vols went for the throat immediately.

On the very next play, Cutcliffe called for play action again, and Martin - this time with plenty of time - found Cedrick Wilson with three steps on his man in the corner of the end zone.  Three plays, two touchdowns, one turnover...and in less than thirty seconds of gametime, Upset Saturday was over.

On the night, Travis Henry ran for 120 yards and Peerless Price (6 catches, 97 yards, and the critical TD) secured MVP honors.  The drama belonged to everyone else, but the night truly belonged to the Vol defense.  All in all, the Vols escaped Upset Saturday, won back-to-back SEC Championships for the second time in the 90s (along with 89-90)...and punched their ticket for Tempe, Arizona.

(Video Highlights at the SEC's Official Site)