Editor's note: This is the ninth story in a series reflecting on the 1998 Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship. This story by Ward Gossett was originally published 20 years ago.
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's going back to the title game.
The Volunteers, ranked No. 1 in the country, had to have a win over Kentucky on Saturday just to assure themselves a shot at defending their Southeastern Conference championship. They secured it in rather convincing fashion, building a 38-7 halftime lead and coasting home with a season-high point production in a 59-21 win.
The Wildcats had scrambled back into the Top 25 (at No. 25) last Sunday afternoon following a convincing win over Vanderbilt, but there was no celebration that day. One teammate was killed, another injured and a close friend of several of the players also died in a one-car accident Sunday morning.
"This was a week of emotions surrounded by tragedy," said Kentucky coach Hal Mumme. "There's no way to describe it. It's been sad, a week of sad losses. These guys are all 19 and 20 years old. We didn't play well, focused or with emotion. If we respond to what they do, there's no problem."
Distracted or not, the Wildcats were overwhelmed as the Volunteers sauntered to their 14th straight victory over their border rivals before a rollicking crowd of 107,252 and a CBS-TV regional audience.
"They played awfully hard on both sides of the ball, but you know (the accident) had to have some effect on them," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who expressed his sympathies personally to Kentucky coach Hal Mumme prior to the game.
Though playing without the services of team co-captain and senior linebacker Al Wilson, UT turned in what was probably its best defensive performance of the year, limiting high-octane quarterback Tim Couch and the high-powered Kentucky offense to three touchdowns, some 18 points below their season average. Wilson, the Butkus Award candidate who was sidelined with a groin pull, did not dress for the game and was relegated to little more than cheerleading and encouraging words.
It didn't matter as UT defensive coordinator John Chavis shifted junior Raynoch Thompson to the middle and moved safety Fred White up to an outside linebacker spot.
The Wildcats entered the game ranked second nationally in total offense (550 yards) and passing offense (419.7 yards) and seventh in points per game (39.6). They finished with 376 yards of offense on 337 passing yards and just 39 rushing yards. Couch, though tying a record for completions by a Vol opponent, was sacked six times.
"I think we might've played our best game of the year on defense today, especially playing against that style of offense," Fulmer said.
The victory not only enhanced Tennessee's chances of getting to the national championship game on Jan. 4 at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., but also allowed the Volunteers to claim their fourth straight 10-win season and their fifth in the last six years.
"You have to hand it to Tennessee. They thumped us pretty good," said Mumme.
"I am not going to make any excuses," added Jeff Zurcher, Kentucky's senior safety. "We did not come in and take care of business. We did not execute, and I don't think execution has any emotional ties. I cannot speak for other guys, but I got a good night's sleep last night and I slept well this week. I felt fresh because of the shortened practices from this week."
Kentucky ended the regular season at 7-4 and appears to be a probable candidate for the Peach Bowl in Atlanta or the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. The Vols, 10-0, play at Vanderbilt on Saturday (3:30, Jefferson-Pilot) and will meet either Arkansas or Mississippi State in the league's championship game on Dec. 5 in Atlanta.
Mississippi State knocked off the 9th-ranked Razorbacks 22-21 yesterday in Starkville, Miss.
"There's nothing set in stone," said kicker Jeff Hall, who became the SEC's all-time leading scorer. "We've got to go out and work our tails off. Vandy won't be easy."