Editor’s Note: On September 22, members of the Fiesta Bowl Committee and Staff joined the University of Tennessee to honor its 1998 national championship team when it played host to the Florida Gators at Neyland Stadium.
This is part one of a two-part series that features quarterback Tee Martin who led the Volunteers to a perfect season and national championship victory in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
By Andy Shultz
The Tennessee Volunteers entered the 1998 season quietly believing they could be a team of destiny. Even with a preseason Top 10 ranking, most experts predicted it could be a down year.
Doubt became the motivating factor for new starting quarterback Tee Martin and his teammates.
“I was nervous entering the season replacing a great player like Peyton Manning,” said Martin, who only attempted 16 passes as a two-year back-up to Manning.
“We knew we had a core nucleus (entering the 1998 season) for a championship team,” added Martin, who is now Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach at USC. “We had a good defense and running game, great receivers around me and an experienced offensive line. I was the one with the least amount of experience. My approach was to do my job and focus on trying to win every game.”
Martin’s approach was tested in the opening game of the season. He led the Volunteers on a late fourth quarter drive setting up placekicker Jeff Hall for a game-winning field goal as time expired, defeating No. 17 Syracuse, 34-33, at the Carrier Dome.
Tennessee jumped to No. 6 in the polls and returned to Neyland Stadium against No. 2 ranked and arch rival Florida. The Gators were riding a five-game winning streak against the Volunteers with an average margin of victory of more than two touchdowns.
Martin’s key scramble on third and long in overtime helped set up Hall for a 41-yard field goal that gave the Volunteers a 20-17 lead. Florida missed a field goal on its possession and an epic celebration ensued in Knoxville.
“The turning point (in the season) for me was beating Florida,” said Martin. “They came into our place where we haven’t beaten them in five years. They had Jevon Kearse and a team stacked with great players. To beat Florida in overtime and get over that hump, we knew we had something special.”
Following the Florida win, the Volunteers jumped into the Top 5 and continued their march towards an undefeated season. Martin continued to gain confidence and during a two-game stretch in October set a then-NCAA record by completing 24 consecutive passes.
They won their remaining nine games by an average of more than 24 points and in mid-November reached No. 1. The same week the Volunteers became the top team in the country, the unbeaten Arkansas Razorbacks came to Neyland Stadium and almost pulled off an upset.
Trailing 24-22 with less than two minutes to go in the game, the Volunteers recovered a late Arkansas fumble. Running back Travis Henry ran five straight times and scored the winning touchdown with 31 seconds left in the game to keep the dream season alive.
In the SEC Championship Game, the Volunteers faced No. 23 Mississippi State. Trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Martin led the Volunteers on two touchdown drives to help secure the victory and a second consecutive SEC Championship. The Volunteers completed the regular season a perfect 12-0.
“After a tough SEC Championship Game where I got beat-up pretty good, I was at a friend’s house sleeping when the announcement was made,” said Martin. “When I woke up, I found out we were playing in the national championship game.
“That was the first year of the BCS National Championship and we weren’t sure how the voting, strength of schedule and other factors worked,” added Martin. “We knew we were undefeated, SEC Conference Champions and believed we had a good shot. When we learned we would be playing Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, we were ready to go to work.
“Being a college football fan, I knew the Fiesta Bowl had great match-ups. They always had games you wanted to watch. It was special playing for the national championship.”
In part two of the series, Martin discusses how Tennessee continued to overcome adversity and win a national championship in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.