There seems to have been some kind of misunderstanding regarding
Tennessee's timetable. The Volunteers were supposed to make a
run at the national title this year, not last year.
Last season was supposed to be a write-off while Tennessee moved
in new players to replace the 12 who had departed to NFL
training camps. Tee Martin was a first-year starter at
quarterback, learning to fill the cleats of Peyton Manning.
Injuries took a toll: Senior All-America middle linebacker Al
Wilson spent much of the season hobbled by right shoulder and
groin injuries, and star tailback Jamal Lewis tore the lateral
collateral ligament in his right knee in the fourth game, ending
his season. No one imagined that Tennessee would finish
undefeated and ranked No. 1.
So how do you predict what the Vols will do this season?
Repeating as national champions seems wildly unlikely: No team
except Nebraska (in 1994 and '95) has done it in the last 19
years. But the Volunteers maintain that they might be more
talented this year than last, and equally driven to win the
title. "It's not a surprise to see that everybody is as hungry
as they were last year, but it is a delight," says the 6'3",
215-pound Martin, who enters his senior year having been
intercepted just twice in his last 179 passes. "I don't think
anyone respected what we did last year. People said it was by
luck that we won. We have something to prove."
In fact, the '98 Vols could easily have lost both of their first
two games, against Syracuse and Florida, and they came back
against Arkansas after recovering the decade's most improbable
fumble. This year they face what could be an even tougher road:
at Florida on Sept. 18, at Alabama on Oct. 23 and at Arkansas on
Nov. 13, with a visit from Notre Dame on Nov. 6. The key to
continued success will be the attitude of Tennessee's players:
Coming off the first 13-win season in school history, do they
see themselves as Goliaths, or do they still reckon they're a
bunch of Davids?
Senior co-captain Darwin Walker, a 6'3", 290-pound defensive
tackle (and All-America shot-putter) who runs the 40 in 4.6
seconds, determined his answer last January. Still on a high
after winning the national title, he made phone calls to several
NFL general managers to help him decide whether he should turn
pro a year early. At best, some of them said, he might go in the
second round; others predicted that more than 100 players would
be taken ahead of him. "I could tell some of them didn't know a
lot about me," says Walker, who by May will have earned his
degree in civil engineering. In the meantime he has decided to
earn himself and his team more admirers.
Walker spent the winter training in the weight room with some of
his teammates. The players wore T-shirts that read CHAMPIONS ARE
NEVER SATISFIED--courtesy of national coach of the year Phillip
Fulmer, who after seven seasons in Knoxville has the highest
winning percentage (.859) of any active Division I coach. "After
we won the national championship, Coach Fulmer got more intense
and has made us work harder," Walker says. "I thought last year
was the ultimate in hard work until we started this summer."
Walker is one of six seniors who plan on sharing the leadership
duties on defense in place of the departed Wilson, who led the
team with five forced fumbles. None of the candidates to succeed
Wilson at middle linebacker--Travis Colston, Bernard Jackson and
Keyon Whiteside--won the job outright in the spring, so the Vols
are considering a shift of junior outside linebacker Eric
Westmoreland into the middle.
Last summer it was Wilson who presided over the unofficial but
highly intensive workouts that wedded the new starters to their
sense of purpose. Following Wilson's example, Martin found
himself running sprints at the university track late on Friday
and Saturday nights while other students were out partying. This
year Martin has been a leader of the summer workouts and has
diversified his late-night training by doing resistance running
in the pool behind his apartment complex. "I'm feeling faster,
bigger and just stronger in my legs and my arms," he says.
Martin will miss wideout Peerless Price, who plucked several
victories out of the air last year with his acrobatic catches
and helped build Martin's confidence. But no worries there--as
always, Tennessee has a half dozen receivers capable of taking
over a game. The most challenging adjustment might be caused by
offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who called plays for the
first time at the Fiesta Bowl after David Cutcliffe resigned to
become coach at Mississippi. "It's going to be interesting with
Coach Sanders," Martin says. "He was unpredictable with the
plays he called in the bowl game."
Sanders's job will be simplified if Lewis has recovered from
knee surgery. Two years ago Lewis ran for 1,364 yards as a
freshman, and he was averaging 6.8 yards per carry at the time
of his injury last October. In his absence the two
Travises--Travis Henry, a junior power back, and Travis
Stephens, a sophomore speedster--split his duties, and the
Volunteers continued to average close to 200 yards per game. But
a healthy Lewis would only make Tennessee's ground game more
The one thing the Vols say they need is a hint of public doubt
about their chances of repeating. "I honestly hope we're not
Number 1 before the season," says Walker. "That would show us
how much the country disrespects us, and that's the way we like
it." Here you go, then--a Number 4 ranking, and best of luck
proving everyone wrong again.
COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT LAFORET/ALLSPORT Workaholic Martin has made himself stronger and faster--and all he did last year was throw for 2,164 yards and 19 TDs.
1998 record: 13-0 (9-0, 1st in SEC East)
Final ranking: No. 1 AP, No. 1 coaches' poll
1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 34.0 211.3 187.5 398.8
DEFENSE 14.4 93.9 209.1 303.0
Coach: Phillip Fulmer
Eighth year at Tennessee (67-11); Career Division I-A record:
WR Cedrick Wilson Jr. 33 catches, 558 yards, 6 TDs
LT Chad Clifton Sr. One of the nation's best tackles
LG Toby Champion[*] Jr. Excelled as sub in Fiesta Bowl
C Spencer Riley Sr. Converted from guard last fall
RG Cosey Coleman Jr. 12 starts at guard, one at tackle
RT Josh Tucker[*] Sr. Academic All-SEC selection
TE John Finlayson[*] So. 4 catches, 47 yards, 1 TD
WR David Martin[*] Jr. Career avg. of 20.3 yds. a catch
QB Tee Martin Sr. Can he win the Heisman?
RB Jamal Lewis Jr. Missed nine games with bum knee
FB Phillip Crosby[*] Sr. Good blocker; maturing receiver
K Robert Loudermilk[*] Sr. Two freshmen nipping at his heels
LE Shaun Ellis Sr. Took int. 90 yds. for TD vs. Auburn
LT Billy Ratliff[*] Sr. Only sack came in SEC title game
RT Darwin Walker Sr. Led Volunteers with six sacks
RE Will Overstreet[*] So. 14 tackles as a true freshman
OLB Eric Westmoreland Jr. Second-leading tackler with 79
MLB Keyon Whiteside[*] Fr. Redshirt needs to mature quickly
OLB Raynoch Thompson Sr. Had 10 or more tackles five times
CB Andre Lott[*] Jr. Used mainly on special teams
SS Fred White Sr. Started at linebacker for a game
FS Deon Grant Jr. Clutch int. vs. Gators ensured OT
CB Dwayne Goodrich Sr. Career: 9 int., 6 fumble recoveries
P David Leaverton Jr. 39.1 avg. ranked 9th in SEC
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1998 season.
Schedule strength: 29th of 114
Sept. 18 at Florida
The Volunteers, who haven't won in Gainesville since 1971, will
prove that their 20-17 victory over the Gators wasn't a fluke.
Oct. 23 at Alabama
East versus West. This figures to be a matchup of the SEC's two
divisional leaders and a preview of the conference championship
The Bottom Line
Everything went right for Tennessee last season. Don't expect the
Volunteers to get as many breaks this fall, and don't expect them
to repeat as champions.