Editor's note: This is the 12th story in a series reflecting on the 1998 Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship. This story by Sam Woolwine was originally published 20 years ago.
ATLANTA — On a day when the bottom fell out of national championship dreams for the top-ranked teams in the Bowl Championship Series, only one was left standing.
The team from Rocky Top is going to the Mountain Top, but it was a long, arduous climb. And ironically, a harassed and hurried Tee Martin, who had completed only five of 16 passes in the first 24 minutes of the second half, threw for two touchdowns in the space of 30 seconds late in the fourth quarter that enabled Tennessee to outpersevere a doggedly determined Mississippi State, 24-14.
The victory Saturday night before 74,795 was UT's 12th of the season, the most in its storied history, but more importantly, it secured a Jan. 4 date in the Fiesta Bowl where the Vols will play for the national championship.
But until Martin hit the two TD passes, the last of which came after a Mississippi State turnover, it appeared the Bulldogs were on the verge of pulling off the third upset of the day. A magnificent 83-yard punt return by Kevin Prentiss had given Mississippi State a 14-10 lead with just 8:43 to play in the game. Until then, all the scoring had been in the first half. But in those final eight minutes, UT's offense, played to a standstill by a stodgy Bulldog defense, was resurrected from the dead by Martin.
Martin's first TD pass, the one that gave UT the lead following Prentiss' return, came on a 41-yard fly route down the left sideline by Peerless Price. It was a perfectly executed play which Price caught over his shoulder, despite being closely defended. Jeff Hall's extra point gave the Vols a 17-14 lead, but the largely Orange-creped crowd still held its collective breath. The clock still had 6:15 remaining, more than enough time for James Johnson and Co. to come back.
No such luck.
Mississippi State drove a nail in its own coffin on the first play of the ensuing series when quarterback Wayne Madkin, attempting to pass, was leveled by defensive end Corey Terry. The ball flew one way and Madkin the other. Al Wilson picked up the loose ball inside the Mississippi State 30 and rumbled toward the end zone, but he was hit by a Bulldog and dropped the ball. However, an alert Eric Westmoreland was in the right place at the right time, regaining possession for the Vols at the Bulldogs' 26.
Martin, sensing an opportune time, caught the Dogs napping, hitting Cedric Wilson on a flag route in the right corner of the end zone to give the Vols a 24-14 advantage with 5:47 to play. It send the Orange crowd into a frenzy. The hard-fought victory for the top-ranked Vols came on a day when Nos. 2 and 3 fell by the wayside.
First, it was UCLA bowing to Miami 49-45 on the Hurricanes' last possession of the game. Then Texas A&M did in Kansas State in two overtimes, 36-33. That left only the Vols standing among the three undefeated teams that were at the top of most of the polls, and it secures for them a position in the Fiesta Bowl, where they will play for the national title against an opponent to be named this afternoon on an ABC-televised BCS special at 3:30.
Florida State, which was ranked fourth in the last BCS poll, is the anticipated foe.