National Championship; No. 1 AP and Coaches, W Fiesta Bowl
If we were going to have a conversation about who the greater Tennessee football team was, 1938 probably goes down as a more significant team. However, when you’re ranking SEC Champions, there’s no doubt that the 1998 national title team is greater.
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Let’s put an end to this frustrating notion that the Vols were just lucky this year. How lucky is it to lose your quarterback, who happens to be your greatest player of all time and a future NFL Hall of Famer, on top of your go-to receiver, your three best defensive players, one of who became a Pro Bowler, and your top offensive lineman, who happens to be your center?
Also, who wants to have to start the season on the road against a ranked team, an eventual BCS Conference Champion, and then face a top 5 team the very next game? Oh, and in the midst of all of this, who would want to lose their best offensive weapon to a season-ending injury just four games into this year?
Those are all the things the Vols faced in 1998. But when the dust settled, they went 13-0 and won the national championship. Let’s just take a look at some of those SEC wins before we question their luck.
The Vols had to beat the Florida Gators, who were ranked No. 2 at the time and finished with the second best SEC record. They had to beat the Georgia Bulldogs on the road, who were undefeated and in the top 10 at the time and finished tied with the third best SEC record.
Oh, and UT had to play the other two teams UGA tied. One was the Arkansas Razorbacks, who were undefeated when the two met all the way in November. The other was the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who they beat in the SEC Championship game.
Outside of those teams, two others finished 4-4 in the league and made bowl games, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Kentucky Wildcats. And yes, the Vols had to face both of them as well. This was all in one season.
So when we look at quality, UT beat the other top six teams in the SEC outside of itself, not even counting that season-opening win and then the national title win over the Florida State Seminoles. Is that impressive enough for you?
What about how they played in these games? Everybody focuses on the Clint Stoerner fumble or the five Florida turnovers and overtime win. Fair enough. But did you know that, through this brutal SEC schedule, the Vols won their games by an average of 18.3 points per game.
Their win over Georgia was a 22-3 thumping, and it came a week after they lost their best offensive player, Jamal Lewis, for the season. What more do you need to know how great this team was?
While the measure of NFL talent isn’t 1997, there was still Lewis, Al Wilson, Peerless Price, Cedric Wilson, David Martin, Travis Henry, Travis Stephens, Deon Grant, Chad Clifton, Cosey Coleman, Shawn Bryson, Raynoch Thompson, Eric Westmoreland, Darwin Walker, Tee Martin and Shaun Ellis. So the elite names were there.
Simply put, this team was loaded. They lost a ton of talent, suffered the worst injury possible for the year, and still ran through a brutal SEC schedule in what was mostly dominating fashion. So yes, they are the greatest conference championship team ever.