Tennessee football: Vols 10 greatest seasons with junior starting quarterback

Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport /
11 of 11
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport
Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport /

1. 1998: 13-0 (8-0)

Starting quarterback: Tee Martin

SEC Championship; National Championship; W Fiesta Bowl; No. 1 AP and Coaches

Could you have a more obvious No. 1? Tennessee football has one undefeated season in the modern era, the only time we’re analyzing seasons with quarterbacks, and that season just happens to have come with a junior quarterback.

So of course we’re going to consider this the Vols’ best season ever with a junior quarterback. It’s also the most surprising. In 1997, UT had won the SEC title with Peyton Manning, arguably its greatest player ever. He was throwing to the single-season receiving leader in Marcus Nash, who replaced the all-time receiving leader in Joey Kent from 1996.

Related Story. Tee Martin's 10 greatest games with Vols. light

With both gone along with All-American defensive leader Leonard Little, the Vols’ top defensive back and return specialist in Terry Fair and their center in Trey Teague, 1998 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. We know the stories of Al Wilson and the defense. But Tee Martin, taking advantage of a new No. 1 receiver in Peerless Price, was still key.

More from All for Tennessee

Martin showed his clutch gene early. He had learned a lot from Manning and began to prove that sitting behind Manning for two years would make him ready in 1998. But it would be a rough start, as his team, ranked No. 10, would open the season at Syracuse, ranked No. 17.

As Martin was learning the offense and went 9-of-26 in that game for 143 yards. Still, he handled the hostile environment well, also rushing for 81 yards. And he threw two touchdown passes to Price while directing a game-winning drive to win 34-33.

Phillip Fulmer and David Cutcliffe still kept him reserved early, as the defense beat the Florida Gators, ending that losing streak, and the Auburn Tigers on the road. They only really turned him loose against the Houston Cougars, where he threw four touchdowns. However, after Jamal Lewis went down with a season-ending injury, the coaches turned to him more.

Martin now had to replace all the talent from 1997 and the Vols’ best offensive weapon in 1998. He looked horrible in the first half on the road against the top 10 Georgia Bulldogs. But a strong second half to win 22-3 got him going. The next week, he had two first quarter touchdowns and helped UT beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-18.

Then came Martin’s NCAA record with 23 straight completions in a 49-14 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks, followed by a 37-13 homecoming win over the UAB Blazers. He hit reality again, struggling to beat the Arkansas Razorbacks after falling behind 21-3, but he still had a touchdown pass to Price and a touchdown run in the 28-24 comeback win over a top 10 team.

After blowout wins over the Kentucky Wildcats and Vanderbilt Commodores, the junior threw two fourth quarter touchdowns to come back and beat the Mississippi State Bulldogs 24-14 in the SEC Championship. In the national title, he had two more touchdown passes, including the famous 79-yard fourth quarter bomb to Price in their 23-16 win over the Florida State Seminoles.

Next. Projecting the Vols' 2019 2-deep depth chart. dark

Simply put, Martin was part of an overall great team, but as a junior quarterback, he made numerous spectacular plays to help Tennessee football win the national title. And as they did it, he etched his name in the record books of Vol legends. So it’s easily the greatest season in UT history with a junior quarterback.