Editor's note: This is the third story in a series reflecting on the 1998 University of Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship.
As Phillip Fulmer recalled in his book, "A Perfect Season," Tee Martin's confidence was fine after Tennessee's 2-0 start to the 1998 season that included narrow wins against Syracuse and Florida.
With just 16 completions of 46 passes, though, the junior quarterback's stats were not great as the Volunteers prepared to host Houston for their third game after climbing to a No. 4 national ranking in the aftermath of an overtime victory against Florida.relatedarticlethumb
Tennessee's passing game needed a jolt.
"I just didn't want him to start looking at his numbers and having that affect his confidence," the former Vols coach wrote of Martin. "(Offensive coordinator) David Cutcliffe talked to Tee some about the routes he felt most comfortable with, and we decided we were going to open some things up offensively. Tee loved hearing that, and we knew he would need it down the road."
The third start of Martin's career showed the precision of which he was truly capable. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns as the Vols routed Houston 42-7 in front of 106,417 at Neyland Stadium.
"This, of course, was the offense Vol fans envision when they sleep good at night: equal parts passing and rushing," Chattanooga Free Press sports writer James Beach penned in an article published the next morning. "Well, almost. In fact, it probably would have been had those visiting Houston Cougars mustered anything close to the competitive defense they boasted coming into the match-up."
As it turned out, the Vols still ran for more yards (334) than they threw (255) as reserve running backs Travis Henry and Travis Stephens got their most significant action of the season to that point.
"It was important that we grow offensively, and we did that," Fulmer said on his weekly television show the next day. "Thought Tee handled himself exceptionally well. Receivers stepped up."
Fulmer said he had been concerned about the game at the start of the week because it was sandwiched between an emotional victory over Florida and a game at Auburn. Houston was coached by Kim Helton, the father of Tennessee's current offensive coordinator, Tyson Helton, who was a backup quarterback for the Cougars at the time.
Houston had played three power conference teams closely to start the season but struggled to move the ball against a stout Tennessee defense operating under the mantra of "don't let up."
"I felt like our speed on defense had a chance to really neutralize Houston," Fulmer wrote.
Martin connected with Cedrick Wilson for a 33-yard touchdown in the first quarter to begin the scoring and threw touchdown strikes to Jamal Lewis and Shawn Bryson in the second quarter to put Tennessee ahead 21-0 entering halftime.
With a comfortable lead in the second half, Tennessee was able to play many reserves. Stephens shined, carrying nine times for 62 yards. The experience he and Henry gained and Martin's breakout game showed the offense could thrive without relying exclusively on Jamal Lewis.
The following week at Auburn, Tennessee would learn just how important a diversified offensive backfield was.
After drubbing Houston and improving to 3-0, the Vols sang the Tennessee victory song in the locker room and began preparing for a trip to the Plains.
"One more rung up the ladder," Fulmer wrote. "I liked where we were."