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Best Vol Team Tournament, First Round: 1989 vs 1997

A showdown between a pair of 11 win SEC Champions as the first round continues...

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A word on seeding: the Heath Shuler/Condredge Holloway matchup between 1993 and 1972 last week was the "8/9 game" in our bracket, but the seeding was a little creative simply because we didn't want to put 1997 right next to 1998 in our bracket. So what constitutes the "7/10 game" today is actually a much more loaded matchup, and for me is the hardest vote of the first round: both teams won 11 games, both teams won the SEC Championship, and both teams are recent enough that a majority of our readers will know them. These are also the freshman campaigns of Chuck Webb and Jamal Lewis, who were both never better and are in my mind the two most talented backs in Vol history. Good luck.

1989: 11-1, SEC Champions, Final AP Rank #5

QB: Andy Kelly, Sterling Henton

RB: Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb

WR: Thomas Woods, Terrence Cleveland, Anthony Morgan, Alvin Harper, Carl Pickens

OL: Charles McRae, Tom Myslinski, Eric Still, John Fisher, Antone Davis

DL: Marion Hobby, Mark Moore, Martin Williams, Tracy Hayworth

LB: Earnest Fields, Shazzon Bradley, Darryl Hardy

DB: Preston Warren, Keith Denson, Jason Julian, Kelly Days

Holy cow, that's some talent at wide receiver. Pickens played both ways in his freshman season.

The Vols won the SEC title in 1985, then faltered from preseason #10 in 1986 to finish 7-5. The Vols were solid in 1987, 10-2-1 and finishing 14th in the AP poll. Then disaster struck in '88: an 0-6 start for the preseason #18 Vols, including losses to Duke and Washington State in Knoxville. The Vols did rebound to win their final five games.

Still, expectations were again low heading into 1989. The Vols survived Colorado State in the opener 17-14. Then Tennessee traveled west to face #6 UCLA in a west coast night game. And the golden era of Tennessee Football from 1989-2001 truly began on this night. The Vols used a freshman named Chuck Webb and a smothering defense to absolutely stun the Bruins 24-6. Three weeks later the Vols were undefeated and ranked 12th, and #4 Auburn came calling. In an absolute downpour, Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb kept the Vols in front in a 21-14 victory over the Tigers. Cobb had 225 yards on the day, and the Vols were becoming a national story.

But the CobbWebb was short-lived: the Vols beat Georgia 17-14 the next week, but Cobb would be kicked off the team for drug violations. Then Tennessee ran into Alabama for its only blemish of the season, a 47-30 loss in Birmingham. But by now the offense was more in the hands of the passing Kelly than the running Henton, and Tennessee didn't lose momentum. The Vols survived LSU in Baton Rouge 45-39 thanks to a kickoff return from young Pickens, then rolled the rest of the way home. Chuck Webb set the school record with 294 yards rushing against Ole Miss. The league title was split three ways (we beat Auburn, they beat Bama, Bama beat us), sending the #8 Vols to the Cotton Bowl to face pre-SEC #10 Arkansas. And behind 250 yards on just 26 carries (!) from Webb, the Vols beat Arkansas 31-27 to finish the year 11-1. Chuck Webb averaged 5.9 yards per carry for the year.

1997: 11-2, SEC Champions, Final AP Rank #7

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

Peyton's last hurrah started 2-0 with a blowout over Texas Tech and a 30-24 escape in Pasadena against the Bruins. That set up the old familiar disappointment in Gainesville, as Manning was sacked five times and Florida beat Tennessee again, 33-20. One of the biggest reasons the Vols fell to the Gators: freshman Jamal Lewis was on the bench. But no longer.

It started with 155 yards in a win over Ole Miss. With #13 Georgia in Knoxville, Lewis exploded against his home state for 232 yards on just 22 carries in a 38-13 total beatdown. Throw in Manning's 31 of 40 for 343 and 4 TDs, and I dare you to find a better run/pass day in school history.

The Vols then won their third straight over Alabama, and Manning finished his Heisman campaign with a school record 523 yards against Kentucky in a duel over Tim Couch, a record that stood until Tyler Bray got it against Troy this season. Thanks to two Florida losses, the #3 Vols won the SEC East for the first time, and went to Atlanta to face #11 Auburn still alive in the hunt for the National Championship. In a crazed environment with both teams in Atlanta for the first time, the Vols overcame six turnovers to beat Auburn 30-29 thanks to what I believe to be Manning's best overall performance: 373 yards and four touchdowns to beat the Tigers and get Peyton his ring. Jamal Lewis finished the year averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

The Vols got steamrolled by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 42-17, but the loss really helped propel this team forward into 1998, knowing what it took to become National Champions...