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What 1998 Can Teach Tennessee in 2016

What we do and don't remember about Tee Martin and Tennessee's championship offense, and how we have and haven't seen it so far from Josh Dobbs and the pieces of Team 120.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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:

Syracuse 9 26 34.6 143 5.5 2 0
Florida 7 20 35.0 64 3.2 1 1
Auburn 5 14 35.7 68 4.8 0 0
Georgia 16 26 61.5 156 6.0 2 2
Alabama 10 14 71.4 117 8.3 0 0
Arkansas 10 27 37.0 155 5.7 1 0
Kentucky 13 20 65.0 189 9.4 1 0
Mississippi State 15 32 46.8 208 6.5 2 1
Florida State 11 18 61.1 278 15.4 2 2

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.
Tennessee's defense was going to get off the field. They were roughed up for 60 minutes by Donovan McNabb and Syracuse in the opener, and for 30 minutes by Anthony Lucas and Arkansas in November. But they were otherwise stellar, everything you'd expect a championship-level defense to be and then some. Eighteen years later the defense still gets headlines for this team, and rightfully so.

The offense was generally running right at you with Jamal Lewis and then Travis Henry & Travis Stephens, with a dose of Shawn Bryson and Tee Martin just for good measure. The passing numbers in big games weren't that great. But man, could this team hit home runs, and I'm not sure any receiver at Tennessee has ever been better at that than Peerless Price.  Tee Martin's ludicrous 15.4 yards per attempt against the vaunted Seminoles with the title on the line came by way of Price's 199 yards on just four catches.

As we turn our eyes toward potential championships again, those old enough to remember the moments behind all these words may be inclined to compare Josh Dobbs and Tee Martin. Dobbs is already a better and wiser runner, and is utilized as such far more often. And though he has had some low statistical moments like Martin, he's also had some passing days like the Georgia game last year that Martin never approached.

But where the Vols excelled offensively in their title run was in explosiveness and big plays. And this is where Dobbs in particular and Tennessee in general has room to improve, if not a mandate to do so. Tee Martin also did a nice job avoiding interceptions, Dobbs' greatest area of improvement from 2014 to 2015. When you can run the ball at will and have a championship-level defense, you don't have to be great through the air to win. But you do need to be capable of hitting big plays, of putting fear in the defense and having the quarterback and receiver(s) who can make them pay when they don't.

Last year the Vols had just 24 plays of 30+ yards, 82nd nationally. And Tennessee ranked no better than 75th nationally in long pass plays of any denomination from 10-60 yards.

Dobbs isn't Martin, DeBord isn't Cutcliffe, and this year will of course play out differently. But when we remember Tee Martin and the 1998 Vols, we should remember both how well this team did without a consistent passing game against good teams, and how great they were at creating the big play to make the difference. Josh Dobbs and the 2016 Vols may, in all seriousness and celebration, have a run game of equal value and a defense that can play at a championship level. Those two things can lead the way to a title; we've seen it before. But along the path, Tennessee is going to have to find those big plays if they want to create those big memories.