30. 1998: Tennessee Beats Syracuse 34-33
Just for a spoiler alert, the 1998 season will be featured in this list pretty frequently. But what better way to start than with the first game of that season?
Going into the year, the Vols’ last outing was a 42-17 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Then they lost six All-SEC performers, two of whom were All-Americans, and one of whom was All-World quarterback Peyton Manning. Replacing that type of talent spelled a rebuilding year for this team.
And on top of all that, Tee Martin was to replace Manning as the Vols opened the season here, in the Carrier Dome, against a very experienced Syracuse football team predicted to win the Big East led by senior quarterback Donovan McNabb. In a battle of Top 25 teams, this game could have gone either way.
Concerns about Martin surfaced in this game as he was only nine of 26 in the game. But he did have two touchdown passes and 81 rushing yards. In a back and forth shootout, McNabb outperformed Martin for the most part.
But thanks to Peerless Price and Jamal Lewis, Tennessee stayed in the game. And with the Vols trailing 33-31, Martin made up for his shortcomings by engineering a drive down to the Syracuse 10-yard line, where Jeff Hall was able to kick a game-winning field goal.
This thrilling victory with an inexperienced team was exactly what Tennessee needed to launch its national title season. In retrospect, the win is far more important than it even was at the time.