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: