For many Tennessee football fans the 1998 Tennessee vs. Florida game is the one they will be telling the grandchildren about.
Big Orange had waited a long time to tear their own goal posts down. Six years to be exact. But after four quarters of hard hitting football and a total of 10 overtime plays, Tennessee got the Florida Monkey off of their back. They defeated the old ball coach, Steve Spurrier’s, Gators 20-17 to snap a five-year losing streak. Everyone that saw this Tennessee – Florida match up describe it as “the game” they will never forget.
Tennessee fans who witnessed the 1998 Florida game will tell you it was probably the single most exhilarating night of football they have ever witnessed in Neyland Stadium, and it still stands out to me as one of the Vols best moments in their football history.
At the end of the 1998 season, the Tennessee Vols won their second undisputed national title, and sixth overall, by defeating Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, the first BCS National Championship Game. The '98 Vols beat eight bowl teams, including six January bowl teams, four top ten teams, and three BCS bowl-bound teams. The 1998 Tennessee Volunteers were ranked as the No. 3 college football team of all time by the Billingsley Report computer ratings.
Many expert expected the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers to have a slight fall-off season after their conference championship the previous season. They had lost quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Marcus Nash, and linebacker Leonard Little to the NFL.
They were in the midst of a five-game losing streak to the rival Florida Gators. Nonetheless, the Volunteers ended their season in Tempe, undefeated, becoming only the fourth school in modern college football history to complete a 13–0 season.
Peyton Manning’s replacement was Tee Martin. While Peyton Manning will probably always be the legend of Tennessee football, many fans believe Tee never got the credit he deserved by from main stream media.
While at the University of Tennessee, Martin played college football under head coach Phillip Fulmer from 1996 to 1999. Martin was a backup to Peyton Manning during his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Tennessee. During his junior season, Martin led the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers football team to a 13–0 record and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida State, winning the school its first NCAA Division I-A national football championship since 1951.
In the 1998 season, Martin broke the NCAA record for consecutive completions. Against South Carolina, Martin completed his first 23 passes. Combined with a completion on his last pass the previous week against Alabama, Martin's string of 24 consecutive completions and 95.8% completion percentage set new records.
Martin broke the Southeastern Conference record of Ole Miss' Kent Austin, which was 20 consecutive complettions. He broke the NCAA record for completions over multiple games with 23 consecutive over two games, which was shared by Southern Cal's Rob Johnson and Maryland's Scott Milanovich.
In addition, Tee broke the one-game record of 22 straight completions set by Iowa's Chuck Long in 1984. Lastly, his 95.8% completion percentage broke the previous best single-game completion percentage of 92.6% set by UCLA's Rick Neuheisel in 1983.
Florida entered Neyland Stadium on September 19, 1998 as the No. 2 team in the country, while the home-standing Volunteers were ranked sixth and had just barely escaped Syracuse with a 34-33 win. This Florida team featured quarterbacks Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer, and was at the height of the Fun 'N Gun offense that then-head coach Steve Spurrier takes credit for making famous in the 90’s.
Tee Martin and the Volunteer offense couldn't get things cranked up, but four turnovers forced by the its defense—including two in the third quarter—kept the Vols in it. The two teams traded third quarter touchdowns, but a scoreless fourth quarter sent the game to overtime tied at 17.
Defense again ruled the day in overtime. The Vols went three-and-out in their first possession, but then Jeff Hall nailed a 41-yard field goal to give the Vols the lead.
Florida got on Tennessee's doorstep, but the Vol defense rose up behind linebacker Al Wilson—who forced three fumbles on the night—and forced Gator kicker Collins Cooper to attempt a 32-yard field goal. Cooper narrowly missed it wide left, which set off the wildest celebration on the field in the history of Neyland Stadium.
The win broke Tennessee's five-game losing streak against Florida, and vaulted the Vols into the national title discussion—which they would go on to win four months later.
Tennessee wrapped up the 1998 season in the desert in Phoenix, Ariz. by hoisting the crystal football after defeating Florida State to win the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. Had it not been for one missed field goal in September, the Volunteers may not have been in that position.