If you're looking for the apex of Tennessee Football, here it is.
The '97 Vols were actually the 7 seed in our tournament, burdened with two losses on their record and one of them a beatdown at the hands of Nebraska. But they've been quite resilient in this field, taking down the 11-1 SEC Champions from 1989, the 1967 team that won a share of the National Championship, and then squeaking past the beloved 1985 SEC Champion SugarVols with 51% of the vote in the semifinals.
A significant percentage of that love is due to their senior quarterback: this is what should've been Peyton Manning's Heisman season, and along the way he set the school record for passing yards in a game, season, and career in 1997. He also broke the SEC record for wins as a starting quarterback, which he held until David Greene took it seven years later. And Manning finally got his ring in a 30-29 thriller over Auburn in UT's first SEC Championship Game appearance, the first SEC title for Phillip Fulmer.
But this team is more than just Manning. It's the spectacular freshman campaign of Jamal Lewis, who might've made a difference in the Gainesville loss had he played in it. It's Leonard Little at his most terrifying, a hybrid DE/OLB who stood next to Al Wilson two out of three downs, which is an insane thought in hindsight. And there are a handful of guys on this team whose absence caused many to believe 1998 would be a reloading year, including Marcus Nash, Jonathan Brown, Bill Duff, and three-fourths of the secondary including Terry Fair at corner. The 1997 team is all of that talent plus a significant number of the guys who made 1998 what it was. As far as an on-paper starting lineup goes, I challenge you to find one more talented than this in the history of Tennessee Football, including the 1995 and 2001 teams that fell on the other side of the bracket:
QB: Peyton Manning
RB: Jamal Lewis, Shawn Bryson
WR: Marcus Nash, Peerless Price, Andy McCullough
OL: Chad Clifton, Spencer Riley, Trey Teague, Mercedes Hamilton, Cosey Coleman
DL: Jonathan Brown, Bill Duff, Ron Green, Corey Terry
LB: Al Wilson, Leonard Little, Raynoch Thompson
DB: Dwayne Goodrich, Terry Fair, Cory Gaines, Tori Noel
The '97 Vols went to the Orange Bowl at 11-1, ranked third in the nation, and still with an outside shot at a National Championship had Michigan fallen to Washington State in the Rose Bowl. Just because they finished the year at #7 because of what eventual split-champion Nebraska did to them doesn't mean they weren't right there at the very end of the season.
Of course, if you're voting on championships and memories, this is no contest.
I won't spend time discussing the 1998 Vols in those terms, because you don't need me to. They were the one seed in our field because of their rings and because they are the most beloved Vol team of my generation. After blowing past 2003 and 1972 in the first two rounds, the 1995 Vols (which included sophomore versions of Manning, Nash, Little, etc) managed 25% of the vote against them in the semifinals. Like '97, the '95 Vols took one beating on the year. They finished #3 AP/#2 Coaches' poll, but still couldn't topple the '98 Vols.
Could anyone? Again, this is only a conversation if you consider talent and who would win on a neutral field. Will the '97 Vols fare any better?
If you're too young to remember, it's hard for me to describe how dangerous this offense was once we started giving the ball to Jamal. This was Peyton at the peak of his powers and Jamal at his most violent. And the Vols had the same championship offensive line from '98 leading the way (though without getting their butts handed to them by Nebraska to toughen them up for the last step of the journey the next year). The '97 Vols did lose at Florida, but that was without Lewis. With Lewis, this team was not threatened until the very end of the season, and Auburn needed us to turn the ball over six times to play us within a point in Atlanta.
QB: Tee Martin
RB: Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Travis Stephens, Shawn Bryson
WR: Peerless Price, Jermaine Copeland, Cedrick Wilson
OL: Spencer Riley, Chad Clifton, Cosey Coleman, Reggie Coleman, Mercedes Hamilton
DL: Shaun Ellis, Darwin Walker, Billy Ratliff, Corey Terry
LB: Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Eric Westmoreland
DB: Dwayne Goodrich, Steve Johnson, Deon Grant, Fred White
The 1998 Vol offense was a trade-off: Jamal Lewis carried the load the first four games of the season, then went down with a torn ACL. Travis Henry and Travis Stephens did the rest as freshmen, but Tee Martin also progressed enough to lead the charge late. The '98 offense would have been more if Lewis had stayed healthy, but even without him it was a group that did what teams with legendary defenses need to do: take care of the football, hit a few big plays, and lean on you until you fall. Once Lewis went down the Vols won their biggest games of the season without a huge explosion: 22 points at Georgia, 28 vs Arkansas, 24 in the SEC Championship Game, 23 in the Fiesta Bowl. We didn't score a ton, but we didn't need to.
And the '98 defense is why, and it's where the talent differential between these two swings back the other way just a bit.
Let's say again how insane it is that the '97 defense had Leonard Little and Al Wilson playing together. That's crazy.
From there, '98 gets the advantage on the defensive line thanks to the arrival of Darwin Walker and the emergence of Shaun Ellis. Jonathan Brown was no slouch in '97, and was overshadowed by Little his entire career. But the '98 line had more talent and more firepower. In the secondary, the '97 team had better corners, but '98 still had one of those corners and was way better at safety with Deon Grant and Fred White.
In the end the '97 team will always come back to Manning, and the '98 team will always come back to its defense. That's the real chess match here: what would Peyton Manning have been able to do against the '98 defense? Would it have been enough?
Your heart and your gut are voting for '98, and so are mine. Will your head make a different decision?