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Inaugural BCS Champs: Remembering The '98 Vols

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Phillip Fulmer celebrates winning the inaugural BCS national championship. The BCS ends at the conclusion of the 2013 college football season. Photo by Vincent Laforet/Allsport.
Phillip Fulmer celebrates winning the inaugural BCS national championship. The BCS ends at the conclusion of the 2013 college football season. Photo by Vincent Laforet/Allsport.

The BCS comes to an end at the conclusion of the 2013 college football season; the debate it created led to an interesting 15 years. Its controversial formula decided who plays for the national championship and other BCS bowl games.  

The BCS has been criticized time and time again, but it has allowed two teams to play each other for a well-defined national championship, unlike the uncertainty of pre-BCS seasons.   

We have seen a split national championship in 2003 with LSU winning the BCS and USC winning the AP championship. We saw an Alabama/LSU rematch. We watched an undefeated Auburn team get left out.  

Tennessee can be declared as "the granddaddy of them all" by winning the inaugural 1998 BCS national championship 15 years ago.  

The Vols did the unthinkable that year. The year after Peyton Manning graduated, the Vols did not slow down. The season marked the height of what Phillip Fulmer built in Knoxville.

"It was surprising because the year before after Tennessee won the SEC championship, they lost Peyton Manning, they lost Terry Fair, they lost Marcus Nash, they lost three first round draft picks," Jimmy Hyams host of WNML's Sports Talk in Knoxville said. "However, I knew it was talented in 1998 and I actually predicted the team would go 11-1. I thought they would lose to Florida and win every other game."  

The Vols had to gain respect from the voters, who ranked Tennessee No. 10 preseason, and the team needed to get the Florida monkey off their back. The Vols accomplished the latter with their first victory against the Gators since 1992, erasing a five-game losing streak to Steve Spurrier. The goalposts were torn down inside Neyland Stadium after Tennessee knocked off the second-ranked Gators, 20-17, in overtime.  

Beating Florida was just one obstacle Tennessee had to overcome in 1998. Getting the team ready for a season-opening game at Syracuse was a challenge in itself for Coach Fulmer. Breaking in a new quarterback against a Syracuse team led Donovan McNabb seemed like a challenge.  

"Playing a quarterback in Donovan McNabb and playing in the Carrier Dome, and it was a road trip. It was a few years before that Florida went up to play Syracuse in the Carrier Dome and got routed," Hyams said. "It was interesting during the course of that game, at least a dozen Tennessee players that had cramps, they had taken creatine before the game, which they now no longer do, and they had a bunch of cramping going on. So it seemed like every other play in the second half, there was a Vol going off the sideline. But it was a quality win on the road."  

Like all championship teams, being good is one thing, but a team has to have luck on their side also. Tennessee had that and the most notable game to remember was the Arkansas game.   

Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner always will be remembered fondly by the Tennessee faithful for his fourth-quarter fumble as he was trying to ice the game for the Hogs. Arkansas was up 24-22 with 1:47 remaining. It was second-and-12 and Tennessee had one timeout. Stoerner snapped the ball and then lost his balance stepping on an Arkansas offensive lineman.

If you were watching on TV you heard CBS' Sean McDonough say, "Stoerner lost the football. Oh my goodness! He stumbled and fumbled!" Then Rocky Top played as loud as ever.   

"It was huge. It was an awful call by Arkansas," Hyams said of the undefeated Razorbacks coming into Neyland Stadium. Houston Nutt, the Arkansas first year head coach, was nearly celebrating victory for his 10th-ranked team. "They were trying to eat some time and he (Stoerner) rolled out and Brandon Burlsworth stepped on his foot, fumbled it and Billy Ratliff recovered it. The stadium was unbelievable. It was rocking, I was a little bit fearful in the press box because it was shaking. Fans were going nuts."  

Tennessee took over on the Arkansas 43-yard line and Travis Henry ran the ball to the 28. Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe kept feeding the ball to Henry as he eventually scored a touchdown. He iced the game and cemented Tennessee as a team of destiny.

"Tennessee just handed it to Travis Henry for about seven consecutive plays, the Green Bay Packers couldn't have stopped him. There was no way Tennessee wasn't going to score on that drive, that's a team of destiny," Hyams said..  

The Vols continued to roll through conference championship weekend as Tennessee defeated Mississippi State in Atlanta. They took care of business, unlike the other remaining teams left battling for a spot in the first BCS title game.

The Vols played Mississippi State after third-ranked Kansas State and second-ranked UCLA lost earlier that day. Kansas State suffered their first loss of the season to Texas A&M as Tennessee quarterback transfer Brandon Stewart pulled out the double-overtime upset.   

UCLA traveled to Miami for a weather-postponed make-up game. The Bruins suffered their first loss in a 49-45 shootout, propelling Tennessee to play as the only remaining undefeated BCS team. Tennessee defeated Mississippi State and then Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, 23-14.   

"With Tee Martin, Al Wilson, Jamal Lewis, the talent they had, I knew they were going to be really good and I knew Tee Martin was a great leader and these players would rally around him," Hyams said.  

The BCS is coming to an end and the 1998 Tennessee team will always be remembered as the first school to claim the BCS crystal ball.  

The 1998 Tennessee Championship run:  

Regular Season

at Syracuse: W, 34-33
vs. Florida: W, 20-17 OT
vs. Houston: W, 42-7
at Auburn: W, 17-9
at Georgia: W, 22-3
vs. Alabama: W, 35-18
at South Carolina: W, 49-14
vs. UAB (HC): W, 37-13
vs. Arkansas: W, 28-24
vs. Kentucky: W, 59-21
at Vanderbilt: W, 41-0

SEC Championship Game

vs. Mississippi State: W, 24-14

BCS National Championship (Fiesta Bowl)

vs. Florida State: W, 23-16