How many more bits of evidence do we need to prove it feels like 1998? Tennessee football is 8-0 right now and hadn’t even gotten up to 6-0 since ’98. The Vols and Georgia Bulldogs Saturday will be the first game since 1998 that a game with two undefeated teams in November includes an SEC East team.
Most notably, though, it’ll surpass the record for the highest combined ranking in a game between the Vols, which was also their matchup in 1998. It’s the first time since then both teams enter this game undefeated and the first time since then that ESPN College GameDay is on hand.
Add in the fact that it was also a 3:30 p.m. ET CBS kickoff and Tennessee football was an underdog on the road, and you can’t draw any more similarities outside of the fact that this game is in November instead of October. However, that 1998 matchup was a turning point for the Vols’ national championship season.
Heading into that game, the Vols were 4-0 and seemed to exorcise their demons by beating the Florida Gators the second game of the year, which snapped a five-game losing streak at the time. With that win, original consensus was that they would go undefeated in the regular season.
However, the week before UT’s matchup with Georgia, two things changed that. The Vols won a hideously ugly game against a bad Auburn Tigers team on the road, 17-9, and Georgia upset the No. 6 ranked LSU Tigers on the road 28-27 to get to 4-0 themselves.
Nobody knew at the time that LSU would collapse as a program. All anybody saw was an undefeated team with a freshman phenom quarterback in Quincy Carter that finally seemed to be hitting its stride Jim Donnan’s third year. Donnan had gone 5-6 in 1996 and 10-2 in 1997, so his program looked on the rise.
Finally, two more factors were in play: injuries. The Vols lost running back Jamal Lewis for the season at Auburn. Lewis was the whole offense, having to shoulder a much larger role with Peyton Manning gone. Linebacker Al Wilson, the leader of the team, missed the previous week and was battling an ankle injury.
Tee Martin, outside of a few big plays from Peerless Price, hadn’t looked good at quarterback up to that point, and now he was going to have to come through, which seemed like a tall order. The same was true of Lewis’ backups, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens.
So let’s recap. Tennessee football was coming off a one-score win at a team with a losing record and had its best offensive and defensive players hurt. They were visiting a Georgia team coming off a top 10 win and looking like a program on the rise. The Vols were No. 4, and UGA was No. 7.
All of this led to the Vols coming in as underdogs. College GameDay was on hand, and Lee Corso put on the Georgia headgear. According to gambling databases, Georgia was favored by right around three points. So how did it turn out?
Well, the Dawgs never even put up a fight. UT won 22-3. It was 9-3 at halftime, to be fair. The defense proved far too elite for Georgia’s freshman quarterback. Then, at halftime, the turning point of the season came. The coaches finally decided to turn Martin loose.
Martin answered the call with two touchdown passes in the second half, and the Vols had their third top 25 win, their third road win and their second top 10 win five games into the season. This one, unlike Florida an Syracuse earlier, was a blowout.
Winning this game proved the depth of the Vols and what Martin could do, and they got on a roll after this and mostly blew people out with the major exception of that November game against the Arkansas Razorbacks. With this win, the Vols proved they weren’t going anywhere.
Saturday’s matchup between these two teams has somewhat of a similar feel, with conventional wisdom saying Georgia will win. However, history could be on Tennessee football’s side. That Georgia win in 1998 was three weeks after the last time they stormed the field, beating Florida. This Georgia win is three weeks after they stormed the field against Alabama.