Editor's note: This is the second story in a series reflecting on the 1998 Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship.
Going on the road and beating a ranked Syracuse team in the first game of the post-Peyton Manning era provided an early jolt of momentum for the 1998 Tennessee team.
The celebration ceased almost immediately when the Volunteers returned to Knoxville that night with an open date ahead.
"We all knew what was next," the team's head coach, Phillip Fulmer, wrote in his book "A Perfect Season."
Fulmer recorded his weekly television show with "Voice of the Vols" John Ward and moved on to reviewing video of the team's next opponent before his head hit the pillow after the dramatic 34-33 win at Syracuse.relatedarticlethumb
The reason for his intense focus was simple. That next opponent, looming two weeks in the distance, was second-ranked Florida, a growing rival that had defeated the Vols five straight seasons. Tennessee won the Southeastern Conference championship in 1997, even with a loss to Florida, but that was a rarity.
In those days, the winner of the early-season division showdown gained a distinct advantage in the race to the SEC title game.
"Knowing that, we knew that everything we wanted kind of hinged on that game," said Jeff Hall, then a senior kicker, during a recent phone interview. "It wasn't so much the win-loss record of the previous years. It was just that what we wanted to accomplish required us to win. That was really how we focused on that game."
Hall's overtime field goal lifted sixth-ranked Tennessee to a 20-17 victory over the Gators and capped another team effort that embodied the Vols' trek to a national championship.
For Hall, that night 20 years ago is marked by memories of two prayers. One came before the game. The other had to be abandoned as fans from a crowd of 107,653 rushed the field at Neyland Stadium and tore down the goal posts in celebration.
Hall and his fellow specialists, punter David Leaverton and holder Benson Scott, had a ritual of praying together during warmups. As the sun set on a packed Neyland Stadium with a national television audience about to tune in on CBS, the magnitude of the moment affected the emotions in the pregame prayer.
"I can remember sitting there praying with David and Benson and just losing it," Hall said, taking a deep breath as he relived the moment. "Tears coming into my eyes. I wouldn't say I was bawling, but I was crying. I was noticeably emotional. That was the only time it ever happened when we did that."
Hall, a captain on the 1998 team, was perfect that night, making field goals from 39 and 41 yards.
"In both instances, I don't know if I've ever kicked a ball more pure in my life," he said. "It may not have been the farthest kick or the highest kick, but it definitely felt almost effortless. I felt like when I followed through, my foot was just going to keep going up into the air. I don't remember a lot of kicks like that. That was distinct."
Hall's kicks may have looked effortless, but beating a team coached by Steve Spurrier that had a defense coordinated by Bob Stoops required defensive heroics from the Vols.
Rotating quarterbacks each play on its first series of the game, Florida drove inside Tennessee's 5-yard line and was on the verge of scoring first, but Deon Grant and Al Wilson combined to force a fumble Raynoch Thompson recovered.
Tennessee forced five turnovers in the game — three of them fumbles forced by Wilson — and held Florida to minus-13 rushing yards. The Gators' two quarterbacks threw for more than 400 yards, but the Vols' secondary stiffened with the game on the line. Grant pulled down a one-handed interception midway through the fourth quarter with the game tied at 17.
That score held as the final seconds ticked off the clock and Tennessee began preparing for the first overtime game in program history. Neyland Stadium waited on edge. Hall's 41-yard kick gave the Vols an advantage.
Then the defense kept Florida out of the end zone. Finally, Collins Cooper's attempt at a game-tying field goal sailed wide left.
"The kick is in the air, and the kick this time is, no sirrreee. No sirreee," Ward said on the radio broadcast. "Final score, Tennessee 20, Florida 17. Pandemonium reigns.
"The field is full of fans," Ward continued. "The fans are holding the goal posts."
Typically, Tennessee would pray with the opposing team at midfield after games.
"Well, we couldn't that night, for good reason," Hall said. "Everybody was just running around the field. It was crazy. Just crazy."
In a subsequent edition of the Chattanooga Free Press, Hall was quoted by former sports writer Don Harris as saying, "What's all the fuss? I just did my job." Later in the article, Hall said, "I'm not going to all the parties and stuff. I've got my priorities in order. I've got to be in church Sunday."
When he finally left the locker room after midnight, Hall found his parents, his former coach from Franklin County High School and Ward waiting outside.
"The stadium was empty," Hall said in a recent interview. "The people had already left to go celebrate. It was just kind of a surreal moment to know what had just happened."
The losing streak to Florida was over. The path to an SEC East championship, and more, lay ahead.
"I was excited and I was relieved," Fulmer wrote. "That was a big win. We took a big step up the ladder."