Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a series reflecting on the 1998 Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship.
Right out of the gate, Auburn exploited a vulnerability in Tennessee's defense.
In a rematch of the previous season's Southeastern Conference title game won by the Volunteers, Auburn entered its fourth game of the 1998 season with a 1-2 record and in dire need of an offensive spark.
Sophomore quarterback Ben Leard made an option pitch to Demontray Carter on the first play from scrimmage for a 16-yard gain. Two plays later, a similar play netted 50 yards.
A defense playing without senior linebacker Al Wilson was on its heels. Auburn was 10 yards away from an early touchdown at home.
Then, as it would all season, Tennessee's defense made a big play at a crucial time.
Auburn went to the option for a third time, and just as Leard attempted the pitch, defensive end Corey Terry blasted him, causing the ball to miss its target. It landed in the arms of defensive end Shaun Ellis.
The big man broke a tackle and ran for what officially went down as a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown. Auburn coach Terry Bowden put his hands on his head in disbelief. Ellis, who in the offseason had been in a serious car accident that threatened his football future, had put the Vols ahead.
A few minutes later, sophomore running back Jamal Lewis broke free for a 67-yard touchdown run, and Jeff Hall's extra-point kick put Tennessee up 14-0. The Vols did not score another touchdown the rest of the day, but it did not matter. The defense stiffened at key moments throughout the afternoon to ensure Tennessee left Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 17-9 victory.
"Defensively, we wanted to control the line of scrimmage and stop the run and make them one-dimensional," Vols coach Phillip Fulmer wrote in his book "A Perfect Season" about the 1998 campaign. "We wanted to make their quarterback beat us. Again, I just believed Auburn would have a hard time scoring many points on our defense."
Auburn quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher had a tough task on his hands, trying to shepherd along two inexperienced quarterbacks — Leard and Gabe Gross — behind an injury-plagued offensive line. But the Tigers did have the advantage of not facing Wilson, the emotional leader of Tennessee's defense who sustained a separated shoulder the week before against Houston and was forced to watch from the sideline.
"You just don't replace an All-America middle linebacker and be the same," Fulmer wrote. "We weren't."
Auburn's offense had a handful of big plays, but the Vols stood firm at pivotal moments.
With Tennessee leading 17-3 in the second quarter, quarterback Tee Martin's fumble gave Auburn possession on the Vols' 1-yard line. They rejected the Tigers on four straight plays to force a turnover on downs.
Wilson jumped up and down while waving a towel on the sideline as his teammates ran off the field exuberant and boos rang out from the stands.
"Al was incredible on the sideline and in the locker room," Fulmer said recently as he reflected on the 1998 season. "He was still very much a part of it. We just found a way to get it done."
Finding a way to get it done became even more of a theme for the Vols when Lewis limped off the field in the first half against Auburn. His season-ending knee injury left Tennessee's running game to a pair of inexperienced sophomores named Travis. Henry and Stephens would combine for more than 1,400 rushing yards that season.
It was a day of mixed emotions for the Vols. On one hand, they saw Ellis make the highlight play just months after a serious accident. On the other, they watched Lewis get hurt heading into a showdown with Georgia.
"For the second week in a row, one of our best players had been injured," Fulmer wrote in his book. "The locker room was happy but anxious. We all knew what Jamal and Al meant to our football team."