Sometimes a player can have such a legendary performance in one game that it propels them onto the list. Such a thing may be the case with Al Wilson. Don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the five greatest players ever in Tennessee football history.
Wilson was the heart and soul of the 1998 national championship team and the only indisputable All-American. So his overall body of work counts. But in terms of saving his best play for big games, Wilson did that for a specific game: against the Florida Gators.
It’s far and away the best individual defensive performance in school history. With no Peyton Manning and a five-game losing streak, the Vols planned to rely on Wilson and the defense to beat the No. 2 ranked Gators in 1998. That’s why they played very conservative on offense.
Their trust in Wilson paid off. The guy forced an amazing three fumbles in the first half, and they all were on different plays. One was on a running play into the end zone. Another was on a completed pass where he stripped the receiver. And then there was a strip-sack.
Simply put, Wilson was all over the field that night. He also laid a huge hit in overtime to stop what might have been an easy game-winning touchdown pass for Florida. Wilson was all over the field, and this sole heroic performance was enough to get him on here. But it wasn’t alone.
If you follow Wilson’s tenure in Knoxville, he always showed up in big moments. His breakout moment came in the 1997 SEC Championship. With the team down 20-10 to the Auburn Tigers, he lit into the players in the locker room. Everybody saw him emerge at that moment, and the Vols rebounded to win the game 30-29 in the second half.
He then had a sack against Syracuse that was key in 1998 and returned a blocked field goal to flip field position against the Arkansas Razorbacks that same year in the comeback. Add in a fumble recovery in the SEC Championship game, and he was clearly a big game performer. But the Florida game stood out above all others.