It’s been 24 years since Tennessee football was No. 1 in the poll that mattered when determining the national champion. Only five seasons have the Vols ever been No. 1 in the poll that mattered, the College Football Playoff being that poll this year.
UT also reached No. 1 for four weeks in 1939, was No. 1 for most of the season in 1951 and hit No. 1 for a week in 1956. Those were all in the AP Poll the most important poll of the time for determining a champion. Then came 1998, when they hit No. 1 in the third week of the BCS standings, the most important poll of that time.
If anybody needs to know about Tennessee football’s history debuting at No. 1 in any poll, go back and look at that game. The Vols reached No. 1 because the Ohio State Buckeyes were upset by the Michigan State Spartans, and an upstart coach named Nick Saban, the previous Saturday.
Ironically, beating Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide is the reason they reached No. 1 in the CFP. It’s the best win of any team in the nation, and the committee was high enough on them for that victory to put them above anybody else. That’s not the main parallel, though.
What really stands out is the fact that the Vols are about to face another undefeated foe, one that is specifically 8-0 and in the SEC. They are also 8-0. Well, in 1998, when they last debuted at No. 1, their first game would be against the Arkansas Razorbacks, who were also 8-0.
Does anybody remember that game? It was the famous stumble and fumble. UT fell behind 21-3 to Arkansas and fought back in the second half, trailing only 24-22 late. However, a failed fourth down attempt all but secured an Arkansas victory.
Then Clint Stoerner, who had built the lead for Arkansas, tripped over his offensive lineman’s foot thanks to Billy Ratliff getting a push and fumbled the ball. Ratliff recovered, and the Vols drove down the field for a game-winning touchdown against the No. 10 ranked Hogs.
That was considered one of the luckiest games of the 1990s, and Tennessee football coasted to the national championship after that. However, what really stands out is they had to face a top 10 team after their first foray into the No. 1 spot in 40 years, and they were No. 1 in the BCS and AP Polls that week.
Now, they are just No. 1 in the CFP, but they have another top 10 matchup with their debut. This time, it’s against the Georgia Bulldogs. Unlike Arkansas in 1998, UGA is a top five team, the Vols are playing on the road, and they are heavy underdogs. The Dawgs are actually No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls.
Still, all the elements are there to make this an incredibly interesting matchup. Could Tennessee football have another historic outing similar to the one that occurred in 1998? That’s hard to predict, but it’s safe to say the excitement is even higher than it was then.