From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 11, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / January 11, 1999

Just when Tennessee fans thought it could not get any better than beating Florida and Alabama, along comes Monday night and the national championship.

The Volunteer fans were able to paint the desert orange after holding on to a 23-16 victory over Florida State in the inaugural Bowl Championship Series title game, the first national championship in football for the Volunteers since 1951.

Back in September, few could have imagined that it would be the Volunteers holding the Sears Trophy come January 4. After all, evenPeyton Manning could not take Tennessee to that next level. And now hewas gone, drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Manning was oneof three Volunteers drafted in the first round in April and one of eight Tennessee players taken overall in the draft.

The Volunteers were left with untried Tee Martin at quarterback. Martinpredictably struggled at first but quickly caught on, ending the season with 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

Tennessee’s title hopes looked like they would get derailed before they even left the station in the first week of the season. But a Jeff Hall fieldgoal as time expired gave the Volunteers a one-point win over Syracuse.

Another field goal, this time a missed one by Florida, helped the Volunteers exorcised a ghost that had haunted them throughout the decade, sealing a 20-17 overtime victory over the Gators.

The Volunteers hit another bump in the road in week four when the team’s leading rusher, Jamal Lewis, was lost for the season with a knee injury.

Travis Henry stepped in and ran for nearly 1,000 yards.

The biggest scare of the season came against Arkan-sas as the Razorbacks held the lead and the ball in the final minutes. But in a play that Volunteerfans will long remember, Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner stumbled, put the ball on the ground while trying to regain his balance and fumbled.

The Volunteers recovered and went on to drive for the winning score.

Tennessee would need two late touchdowns to overcome Mississippi State in the SEC Championship game on day that No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3UCLA were going down to defeat, setting up a Fiesta Bowl date with Florida State.

In the meantime, offensive coordinator David Cutcliff left to become the head coach at Ole Miss. Cutcliff had been credited with helping Man-ningimprove while at Tenn-essee and for helping Martin.

But it was the defense that had helped the Volunteers reach the championship game, ranking 17th in the country in total defense. Whilemuch of the pregame focus was on the Florida State defense, it was the Tennessee defense that kept the Seminoles in check for much of the game.

Peter Warrick, a first round draft pick if he elects to apply for the draft, was held to one catch. And it was a 54-yard return of an interception bySwayne Goodrich that put the Volunteers up 14-0 in the second quarter.

The Vols offense was held in check but came up with three big plays. Thefirst was a 76-yard hook-up from Martin to Peerless Price in the first quarter that set up Tennessee’s first touchdown. The second came withTennessee leading 14-9 in the fourth quarter as Martin and Price again connected, this time for 79 yards and a touchdown. The last came in theclosing minutes with the Volunteers facing a fourth-and-one near the Florida State 30-yard line. Martin rolled left and dumped off a pass thatwas carried inside the 10-yard line. Though the Volunteers fumbled on thenext play, it bottled up the Seminoles last possession and forced them to throw deep into an interception.

Tennessee’s national championship was another example that a team often wins a championship the year after it is supposed to. The 1998-99Volunteers were not the most talented in school history but few showed more heart in overcoming adversity.

Two other notes from the Fiesta Bowl. The first is that the people whocreated the BCS are breathing a sigh of relief. Had Florida State won,there would still be a controversy over who No. 1 with Ohio State alsohaving just one loss. There will still be a case made that the Volunteersand Buckeyes should have had a chance to meet to decide the national title.

The second is that the game marked the end of one of the most distinguished careers in sports, that of Keith Jackson. Jackson was asentertaining as the games themselves, often more so. He brought the gameto his audience and described it in a style of his own. Whoa Nellie, he willdefinitely be missed.

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