The biggest indictment against Phillip Fulmer and David Cutcliffe about the 1997 season is that they didn’t start Jamal Lewis sooner. Tennessee football may well have beaten the Florida Gators had that happened.
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However, despite being a true freshman running back who would be the heir apparent to Jay Graham, the starter in 1995 and 1996, the Vols waited for him to pick up blocking schemes. As a result, they got off to a 2-1 start.
But Lewis finally stepped in during the Ole Miss Rebels game. He ran for 155 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. A breakout star, he then had 22 carries for 232 yards and against the Georgia Bulldogs the next week. All of a sudden, while Peyton Manning was having a Heisman campaign as a senior, he finally had a superstar running back to help him out.
This combination resulted in the Vols beginning to dominate opponents, and they finished the year 10-1 before beating the Auburn Tigers 30-29 in the SEC Championship game to get up to No. 3 in the nation. They lost the Orange Bowl to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a 42-17 blowout, but Manning was banged up, and there was nothing to play for at that moment.
Still, Lewis’s historically great year resulted in a historically great year for the Vols. He finished with 232 carries for 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns in a pass-heavy offense, and he added 23 receptions for 266 yards and two touchdowns earning Freshman All-American honors. Simply put, Lewis became a superstar right alongside Manning.
We all know the story of how Manning would leave and Lewis would go down with a season-ending injury the next year while the Vols would still win the national title. But that doesn’t take away from what he did this year.
To make matters more impressive, in 2003, Lewis joined the 2,000-yard rushing club in the NFL the same season Manning won his first MVP. That’s how dominant this Tennessee football backfield was in 1997, and Lewis’s season was the greatest ever for a UT true freshman.