Editor's note: This is the first story in a series reflecting on the 1998 University of Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship.
Tennessee's 1998 national championship season featured a series of memorable storylines and moments, all given elevated places of prominence in the program's lore because of what they combined to create.
That perfect season and its tapestry of defining moments nearly came undone at the very beginning, though.
Syracuse, ranked No. 17 and led by future Big East offensive player of the decade Donovan McNabb, outgained the Volunteers inside a muggy Carrier Dome in a nationally televised season opener. Costly penalties against Syracuse and stellar red-zone defense helped the Vols escape 34-33 on senior kicker Jeff Hall's game-winning field goal as time expired.
"It was a game where a lot of guys really stepped up and shined," Hall said in a recent phone interview.
Reflecting on that game from Sept. 5, 1998, the first name Hall mentioned was Tee Martin. In the first start of his college career, the junior quarterback led the Vols to a touchdown on their first series. Martin passed to Peerless Price for a 12-yard score with 6:38 left in the opening quarter.
"Tee did a phenomenal job managing the game," Hall said.
The first defensive teammate Hall recalled from the game was linebacker Al Wilson, a fellow team captain who was assigned to be a "spy" and keep track of quarterback McNabb. Wilson racked up 13 tackles and a fumble recovery and sacked McNabb to force a punt on the game's first series.
"Obviously, Al stepped up to the plate like we all knew he would and led the defense," Hall said. "He became the spirit of the team that day."
Still, McNabb wrought havoc on Tennessee at times, finishing the game 22-of-28 passing for 300 yards and two touchdowns. Many of his completions came after he dodged the Vols' pass rush by hurdling and juking defenders.
McNabb was the second pick in the 1999 NFL draft and played in the league for 13 seasons.
In his book "A Perfect Season," then-Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer wrote there were two things on his mind as halftime arrived with the Vols leading Syracuse 14-10: "One, Syracuse was better than I thought they would be. McNabb was outstanding, and their defense was giving us a few more problems than I had anticipated. Two, I felt that if we kept from giving up big plays and held onto the football, our offensive line could wear them out late. I was concerned because McNabb was definitely on his game."
Syracuse ran a variety of the option that incorporated plenty of passing. Hulking fullback Rob Konrad, who also went on to play in the NFL, presented challenges as a runner, receiver and blocker. Tennessee's offense also slowed down after its fast start. The Vols dealt with muscle cramps as the game continued, and Syracuse clawed back from a 24-13 deficit to take a 27-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
Martin answered with a 55-yard run on third-and-long and capped the drive with a short fade route to Price for a touchdown to give Tennessee a 31-27 lead.
After a Syracuse field goal, Martin fumbled with just more than five minutes remaining. Syracuse kicked a go-ahead field goal with 2:40 left, which turned out to be just enough time for Martin to redeem himself with the help of star sophomore running back Jamal Lewis and a favorable call. Facing fourth-and-7 in their own territory with 1:48 remaining, the Vols benefited from a controversial pass-interference penalty that kept the drive alive.
"It just unfolded from there, with Syracuse taking a timeout and us going out and kicking a short field goal and winning and hopping on the bus and heading home and heading back to Knoxville," Hall said. "I also remember that we didn't look past that game. The coaches had done a really good job of keeping us focused on one game at a time. It would have been really easy to look past Syracuse knowing that we had Florida coming in two weeks. We didn't do that."
Fulmer wrote in "A Perfect Season" that Tennessee's locker room was "brimming with confidence" after the game.
"I didn't say a lot," Fulmer wrote. "I told our players that the most physical team had won, that they had showed great character in coming back in the last two and a half minutes, and that I felt our team had something special about them. We sang our Tennessee Victory Song, and I warned them about celebrating the win too long. We had just climbed, I told our team, one rung of the ladder.
"We all knew what was next."
Next was Florida, an arch nemesis that had defeated Tennessee in five straight meetings.
The Vols carried the momentum from Syracuse into a bye week. Meanwhile, the Syracuse Orangemen lamented the outcome of a game they felt they should have won over a visiting Southeastern Conference foe.
"Sure, even with all the mistakes, SU was the better club. Obviously better. Anybody could see that," columnist Bud Poliquin wrote in the Sept. 6 edition of the Syracuse Herald American.
"Until, that is, Jeff Hall swung his right leg to beat the final horn from those 27 yards away and drove the ball, like a stake, into the hearts of the Orangemen."