By Matt Smith, SouthernPigskin.com
"The weather conditions were perfect."
That was Tennessee placekicker Jeff Hall's recollection of Neyland Stadium somewhere around 11:30 p.m. on the night of Sept. 19, 1998, as he was preparing for a potential go-ahead field goal in overtime against second-ranked Florida.
Kickers are often perceived as quirky, to put it kindly, fretting the slightest thing, such as a breeze, that could require them to adjust their routine. But Hall's assessment of that Saturday night rang true in more ways than just the eastern Tennessee sky.
When you mention the year 1998 to a Tennessee fan, the word "perfect" also comes to mind. The fall of '98 was a special time on Rocky Top, as a Volunteers team thought to be in rebuilding mode after the graduation of Peyton Manning went 13-0 and won the school's first national title since the stadium's namesake, General Robert Neyland, was roaming the sidelines.
There were many magical moments that autumn, including Hall's last-second field goal to defeat Donovan McNabb and Syracuse and the "Hand of God" that caused Arkansas' Clint Stoerner to fumble as the Razorbacks were attempting to run out the clock. Ask any diehard Tennessee fan, however, and they'll tell you that the best memory from 1998 was the 20-17 overtime win over Florida.
Just like the weather that late summer night, it was, well, perfect.
Thursday marks the 15th anniversary of that memorable game, a turning point in a series that had been dominated by Florida since the teams became SEC East rivals after the conference split into divisions in 1992.
The teams will meet again Saturday in Gainesville, but the game is merely a blip on the screen, even with a dearth of marquee games this weekend. Not so long ago, the idea that a Tennessee-Florida game would fly under the radar would have seemed ridiculous.
Florida came into Neyland Stadium back in 1998 ranked No. 2 in the nation, the third of four straight meetings where one of the two teams was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2, and looking for its sixth straight win over the Volunteers. Gators head coach Steve Spurrier, who was raised in east Tennessee, had had his way with the Vols. He once famously quipped that "you can't spell citrus without U-T", in reference to Tennessee's back-to-back trips to the Citrus Bowl, a game that generally featured the SEC runner-up, while Florida played in the National Championship Game.
If the great Manning couldn't beat Florida in four tries, how was untested junior Tee Martin, whose name now adorns a street that runs alongside Neyland Stadium, going to do it? Well, with a little help from his defense, something Manning never got in his four losses to the Gators.
Unlike the previous three games, which averaged 72 total points, this one was a defensive struggle. Tennessee broke a 10-10 tie in the third quarter when Martin found Peerless Price from 29 yards out. Spurrier's Fun 'N' Gun answered right back, tying the game at 17-17 with a 70-yard strike from Doug Johnson to Travis McGriff.
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As it became apparent that the game was headed for overtime, the first in either team's history (overtime was instituted in FBS play in 1996), it seemed like just another way for Spurrier to torture the Volunteers. Tennessee began overtime with two incompletions and a penalty, regressing to the edge of Hall's field goal range before a key 3rd-and-22 play.
"I knew it was going to be a long kick," Hall recalled, "but you treat every kick the same. You never focus on the distance."
Martin then did something Manning couldn't, escaping pressure and scrambling for 14 yards to set up a much shorter field goal for Hall.
"41 yards is a lot more makeable than 55," Hall admitted.
Hall's 41-yard field goal was true, but the Volunteers now had to keep the Gators out of the end zone to stay alive. Florida quickly moved inside the Vols' 15-yard line, but its drive stalled, setting up what appeared to be a chip shot field goal for Collins Cooper.
But unlike Hall, whose had the luxury of kicking from the center of the field, Cooper's kick would come from the right hash, making for a tricky angle for his 32-yard attempt.
With the screams of 100,000-plus packed into Neyland Stadium ringing down on him, Cooper overcompensated for the angle, pushing the kick wide left and setting off a sort of pandemonium in Neyland Stadium that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been seen since.
"I was in shock," Hall said "It looked like he made it. I'm starting to get myself prepared for the next series, but before I could turn, you could see the fans start cheering. I remember [former Tennessee offensive tackle] Brad Lampley carrying me around. It was crazy."
Spurrier and the Gators had finally been conquered. Tennessee now got to play the role of national title contender, with Florida relegated to scoreboard watching to see if it could climb back in the division, conference and national title race, as the Vols had done the year before thanks to two conference losses by the Gators.
But 1998 was Tennessee's year, all the way from the escape in upstate New York to open the season to the Fiesta Bowl victory over a Florida State team missing its starting quarterback that sealed the national title. There would be no stumble that season (other than Stoerner's).
Of course, there was nothing quite like the night Hall finally kicked the Volunteers past their arch nemesis.
"Emotionally, it was huge," Hall recalled.
And just like the 1998 Volunteers, it was perfect.