January 5, 1999
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – Quarterback Tee Martin and the top-ranked Volunteers claimed one piece of the national championship Monday night, capping a perfect season with a very imperfect 23-16 victory over No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
It was rusty and rocky, but under the new Bowl Championship Series format, the Volunteers were crowned national champions in the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll.
The Associated Press media poll will be released early Tuesday, and although third-ranked Ohio State may plead for consideration, the Vols pulled together in the second half and held off the Seminoles.
They hadn’t won a national championship since 1951.
But it wasn’t easy. Martin threw two touchdown passes, including a 79-yarder to Peerless Price with 9:17 to go to put the Vols ahead 20-9. But the Seminoles, despite their own turnover and penalty problems, kept coming back.
Florida State cut the lead to 23-16 on Marcus Outzen’s 7-yard TD run with 3:42 left. The play was set up by his 39-yard pass to Ron Dugans on a third-and-seven.
And just when it looked like the Vols would score again to put the game out of reach, linebacker Brian Allen recovered Travis Henry’s fumble at the 10 to give Florida State one more chance.
Outzen, though, was overmatched in just his third start. On Florida State’s first play after the recovery, his long pass intended for Peter Warrick was tipped by Deon Grant and intercepted by Steve Johnson, who returned it 20 yards to the Florida State 45.
The Vols ran out the clock and the sideline emptied as coach Phillip Fulmer ran to midfield with his daughters in tow.
“It was not one or two guys,” he said. “It was a whole football team believing they could get it done, working hard and finally getting it done.”
The Vols (13-0) completed their best season in school history, while the Seminoles (11-2) fell to 1-2 in national championship deciding games.
Martin made the most of his opportunity to do what Peyton Manning couldn’t – get a national title. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Mobile, Ala., was 11-of-18 for 278 and two TDs, while Price caught four passes for 199 yards.
“We knew as a football team that we had to come out and prove we were the No. 1 team in the nation,” Martin said.
Florida State clearly lacked offensive punch with Outzen at quarterback. He may have been able to beat Florida two months ago, but he was no match for the linebacker Al Wilson and the Vols’ defense. He was 9-of-22 for 145 yards with two interceptions and was sacked four times. He also ran 18 times for minus 1 yard.
Florida State was penalized 12 times for 110 yards, while Tennessee was penalized nine times for 55 yards.
It took 15 minutes of sloppy play by both teams before the Volunteers warmed up briefly in Sun Devil Stadium.
After a scoreless first quarter that featured two fumbles, shanked punts, a missed field goal by the Vols’ normally reliable Jeff Hall and 59 yards in penalties, Tennessee struck for two touchdowns in 25 seconds.
First, the Vols took three points off the board after the Seminoles’ Dexter Jackson was penalized for roughing the kicker on Hall’s 24-yard field goal. That put the Vols on the Florida State 4, and two plays later Martin hit fullback Shawn Bryson on a 4-yard touchdown pass.
On Florida State’s second play after the kickoff, cornerback Dwayne Goodrich stepped in front of Outzen’s pass intended for Warrick and ran 54 yards for a touchdown with 13:40 left in the half.
Outzen, making his third start after Chris Weinke was lost for the season with a neck injury on Nov. 7, was 4-of-10 for 35 yards in the first half.
Despite eight penalties for 67 yards, the Seminoles still managed to close the gap to 14-9 by halftime. But it wasn’t easy.
After Derrick Gibson’s 43-yard interception return gave Florida State the ball to the Tennessee 3, the Seminoles needed three plays before fullback William McRay bulled over from the 1 with 8:59 left in the half. All-American kicker Sebastian Janikowski’s point-after attempt was partially blocked by Shaun Ellis and the ball bounced off the crossbar.
Warrick then gave a glimpse of why he may be college football’s most exciting player.
He caught David Leaverton’s punt at the 22, blew past two Vols, broke to his right and then faked out two more defenders for a 51-yard return to the Vols 27.
But the Seminoles kept hurting themselves with penalties, managing only 10 yards on 10 plays, before settling for Janikowski’s 34-yard field goal with 1:17 left in the half.
The new BCS, with its assortment of polls and computers, had delivered this No. 1 vs. No. 2 as a Super Bowl of college football.
Tennessee, though, needed a magical season filled with game-winning field goals, lucky breaks and second-half rallies to end up as the nation’s lone unbeaten team among major conferences (Tulane of Conference USA was 12-0).
A championship seemed unlikely with Heisman Trophy runner-up Peyton Manning gone and Martin the new starting quarterback. No fewer than 10 other players were drafted or signed by NFL teams.
But whenever Tennessee got in trouble, which was frequently, it found a way to escape: at Syracuse, at Georgia, and twice at home, against Florida and Arkansas.
There was the questionable fourth-down interference call against Syracuse that kept the Vols’ final drive alive and allowed Hall to kick a last-play field goal in a 34-33 win. Two weeks later, his 41-yarder in overtime mercifully ended Florida’s five-year winning streak over the Vols, 20-17.
On Oct. 10, the defense rose to the occasion – five sacks, two interceptions – in a 22-3 win over Georgia in the Vols’ first game since the season-ending knee injury to star tailback Jamal Lewis.
On Nov. 14, a week after Tennessee replaced Ohio State at No. 1 following the Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan State, the Vols received their biggest break.
With Arkansas ahead by two points, quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled at the Razorbacks 43 with 1:43 remaining. That led to Travis Henry’s 1-yard TD run with 28 seconds left, giving the Vols a 28-24 win.
The regular-season came to a dramatic conclusion on Dec. 5. Tennessee, Kansas State and UCLA were all undefeated, and not even the first-place Vols knew for sure they would end up in the Fiesta Bowl with a win.
Within a few incredible hours, Miami beat UCLA, Texas A&M beat Kansas State in double overtime in the Big 12 title game and the Vols rallied in the final nine minutes for a 24-14 win over Mississippi State in the SEC title game.
The results were reflected in the final BCS standings: Tennessee would play Florida State, the computer’s choice as the best of the several once-beaten teams.