Let's try a different metaphor for our favorite Vol squad.
Think of 1998 like a baseball team with an elite rotation, lots of guys who hit for contact, and one huge home run hitter. They'll strike out plenty in the middle of the order, but they can also get on the board in a hurry through there. And even if they don't, the other team isn't likely to score enough to beat them.
Over at Football Study Hall the time machine reached 1998 in their re-ranking of years past using S&P+. It may not come as a surprise that the Vols were not the top-ranked team from '98, instead placing fourth behind Ohio State, Florida State, and Kansas State. The BCS Champions need no defense, of course, especially in a year when they were the only undefeated power conference player. But it's true the Vols didn't win it all in 1998 simply because they were the most talented that year or even the most talented Tennessee team of the decade, a conversation I'm interested to see the rankings comment on as they continue to work backward.
There are many general lessons we learned in 1998 we hope might be applicable as the Vols go looking for another championship in 2016 - be deep enough to survive the loss of your best player, it's easier to win with defense than offense, beat Florida - but a specific one comes to mind in looking back on what the '98 Vols did (and didn't) do especially well.
Tennessee's two teams that came closest to the top in the modern era were led not by Peyton Manning, Heath Shuler, or even Erik Ainge or Tyler Bray. It was instead Tee Martin who won a BCS title in 1998, and Casey Clausen who was 30 minutes away from playing for a second in 2001. Clausen is still, for my money, one of the most under-appreciated Vols in my lifetime, an old argument for a different day.
I would not call Martin over-appreciated because, after all, he is wearing the biggest ring of them all. He deserves every bit of it. I would say, however, that when we find ourselves in conversations like, "We don't need elite quarterback play, we won it all with Tee Martin," we're usually misunderstanding or failing to remember in full who Tee Martin was.
Using S&P+ the 1998 Vols played nine Top 50 teams. Here are Tee Martin's passing numbers in those games:
I wouldn't call what Tee Martin did "game management". I also know in the last ten years when we've bemoaned what guys like Matt Simms or Justin Worley did, statistically it was often better than what Martin did in 1998. Our memories of that season are obviously enhanced not just by the prize at the end, but also Martin's NCAA record-setting day against what became a 1-10 South Carolina team, completing his first 23 passes for 315 yards. Martin was likewise excellent in yards per attempt against Houston, UAB, and Vanderbilt, averaging 10+ YPA against those equally bad teams. Those four games, especially the South Carolina performance, help round out his overall season numbers.
But against good teams Martin was horrific throwing the ball early and, while clearly improved from Georgia on in a key narrative of the season, still struggled with accuracy late in the year. His raw numbers against this kind of competition were worse than I remembered.
Better than I remembered? Tennessee's ability to hit home runs in 1998. And Martin was a big part of that.
In those nine games against Top 50 competition the Vols had 13 scoring plays of 25+ yards, and eight of them from 50+ yards:
- Shawn Bryson's 57-yard ice-breaker against Florida
- Tee Martin to Peerless Price against double coverage for 29 yards against the Gators.
- Shaun Ellis with a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Auburn, followed almost immediately by a 67-yard touchdown by Jamal Lewis
- Peerless Price returning a kickoff 100 yards against Alabama
- One of the most important and underrated plays of the year: a 36-yard touchdown from Martin to Price with two minutes to go before halftime and Arkansas leading 21-3
- Three big scores against Kentucky: a 33-yard run by Martin, a 58-yard run by Bryson, and Martin connected with Cedrick Wilson for a 55-yard touchdown
- On consecutive offensive snaps in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship, Martin found Price for 41 yards and John Ward's "six...big...points", then after a Mississippi State fumble Martin hit Wilson for a 26-yard score.
- Dwayne Goodrich's 54-yard pick six in the BCS title game
- And of course, Martin to Price for 79 yards in the fourth quarter against Florida State to help win the national championship, arguably the biggest play in school history.