Breaking News
More () »

Peyton's Last Stand: The 1998 Orange Bowl

January 2, 1998 marked Peyton Manning's final game in a Tennessee Volunteers uniform. This is the story behind his final snaps as a Vol.

MIAMI — Vols 30, Auburn 29. Tennessee was able to eke out a victory in the 1997 SEC Championship game, and all Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning wanted was a hat.

“That’s why I wanted to play. I wanted to get this hat. I’m a big hat wearer. This is the best hat in the world right here," Manning said. 

Nine months prior, with the NFL beckoning, most were unsure if number 16 would even be taking snaps in the 1997 season.

Peyton decided to play his senior year at UT and an SEC Championship was his reward. The Vols were now 11-1 and ranked third in the country. To close out the season, Tennessee was headed to the FedEx Orange Bowl in Miami to take on the ever-formidable Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Before the journey to the 305, Manning had one more stop to make: the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Peyton was the pre-season favorite to win the award, but the announcement of the winner brought perhaps one of the biggest upsets in Heisman history up to that point. 

“From Michigan, Charles Woodson.”

Manning was declared the runner-up, and the conclusion only caused confusion for the Tennessee faithful and head coach Phillip Fulmer.  

“I’m surprised. I feel like if you’re the frontrunner coming in, and you have a great year and your team has a great year, you have a good chance to win it. It just goes to show you the power of press and television, but there’s no sour grapes at all," said Tennessee Head Coach Phillip Fulmer. 

Credit: WBIR
Peyton Manning with the other 1997 Heisman Trophy candidates.

The ever-classy Manning was disappointed he couldn't bring the trophy home, but was looking forward to playing in Miami and his final game as a Tennessee Volunteer.

The team touched down in the Sunshine State and with just days to go before the big game, Fulmer assured the media that his team was not intimidated by the might of the Huskers.

“You know, they’re playing their best football at the end of the year. We had struggled the last couple weeks of the season, but our team is looking forward to playing," Fulmer said.

Credit: WBIR
Coach Fulmer arrives in Miami ahead of the 1998 Orange Bowl

If everything fell properly into place, a national championship was more than just a pipe dream for the Big Orange. First-ranked Michigan was taking on eighth-ranked Washington State in the Rose Bowl. Victories for both Washington State and UT could net the Vols the necessary votes to be the national champs.

Coach Fulmer, a proponent of the bowl voting system in the past, felt the process had become antiquated.

“A couple or three years, I’ve changed. I felt the bowl system and so forth was the way to go. Having been left out of the alliance the last two years with really good teams, and perhaps better teams than some of the people that were in the alliance, I’d much rather play it off," Fulmer said. 

Regardless of the votes that were to be cast, one thing that Vols and the Huskers had in common was they were both ready to play ball.

“We wish the game was yesterday really. We’ve waited so long, and we’re so fired up to go out and play against the best team in the nation. No one thinks we should be on the field with them, and we’re so fired up that we are feeding off everyone’s energy. It’s going to be unbelievable on Friday," said Jermaine Copeland, Tennessee Wide receiver.  

During the SEC Championship game against Auburn, UT quarterback Peyton Manning suffered a knee injury, and in the time since, had contracted an infection. The QB was seen showing up to practices on crutches, but by the week of the Orange Bowl, Peyton was participating in practices and seemed healthy enough to play.

“I hope to play well. I always hope to play well in games. I feel like we have a lot of great people around us and I’m not going to try and do anything I normally do. I plan to get the ball in Jamal Lewis’ hands, and Marcus Nash and Peerless Price’s hands, and let those guys run their scholarship as I like to say," Manning said. 

Aside from a swollen knee, Manning’s teammates felt that they would get the same old Peyton on gameday, and injured or not, Nebraska knew all too well what the quarterback was capable of.

“As long as he’s playing, we really can’t be too concerned if he’s 80% or 100%. Peyton is a great quarterback and even at 80% he’s better than any quarterback we’ve played at 100%," one Nebraska player said. 

Not only would the Orange Bowl be Peyton Manning’s final game, it would also be Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne’s. Osborne had led the Cornhuskers to a bowl game in each of his 25 seasons, 12 of them being the Orange Bowl, and had won the National Championship two out of the last three years. Osborne, along with coach Fulmer, had the highest winning percentage of all college football coaches.

Credit: WBIR
Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne speaks ahead of the 1998 Orange Bowl

“I guess if you talk to the people in Nebraska, I guess there had been some dips, fortunately they haven’t been significant dips. They’ve been 9-3 and 9-2-1, which has been gratifying," Osborne said. 

For two players on opposing sides of the ball, the Orange Bowl was a game a decade in the making. Tennessee corner back Terry Fair and Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Cheatham both grew up together in Phoenix, Arizona, and played together in high school.

“When you get to play against someone you’ve been playing against since you were 10 years old, it’s going to be weird out there lining up on the opposite side of the ball against him knowing that you played together and were on the same team for so long," Fair said. 

Although the two went separate ways after graduating, Cheatham was excited to show Fair all the new tricks he had learned.

“I’ve got an arsenal of moves I haven’t pulled out yet. It’s going to be competitive. I’m going to have to talk and get into his head a little bit," Cheatham said. 

For Fair, the game had a sense of finality. 

“I think we can end some things we’ve been talking about over the years about ‘I can get you. I can get that.’ It’s going to be exciting just to line up against him and see what he’s learned, and how much he’s progressed and play against a guy that I’ve known for so long," Fair said. 

News dropped that Michigan had beaten Washington State to maintain their number one spot, quelling hopes of a Tennessee national championship. 

Peyton Manning’s final game as a Volunteer was at hand, and Tennessee had high hopes for the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as Vol fans had planned. 

By halftime, UT was down 14-3, and in the third quarter, the Huskers scored on every possession, putting the game out of reach for the Vols. Manning was able to punch in a touchdown, but was pulled in the fourth, replaced by Tee Martin who was able to lead Tennessee to another TD. 

The final score of the 1998 Orange Bowl was Nebraska 42, Tennessee 17. A disappointing way for Peyton Manning to end his final game in a UT uniform.

“It’s not the way you want to go out. You want to go out with everything perfect. It didn’t happen tonight. We got beat by a great football team. Tom Osborne, in his last game had his team ready to play. In the second half, they basically whipped us," Manning said. 

As Peyton sung the praises of backup quarterback Tee Martin, #16 assured fans that the Tennessee Vols would be fine without him. 

“I’m real proud of Tee. He got a lot a practice when I was injured and couldn’t practice. I’m really proud of the way he came in against one of the top defenses in the country. He led them to a scoring drive, and that’s going to help his career. Tennessee will be in good hands with Tee Martin," Manning said.

Peyton Manning set 33 school records, seven SEC records and two NCAA passing records during his Tennessee career. 

As for Manning's post-Vol career, five MVP awards and two Super Bowl rings isn't half bad. 

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas
Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The following year, Tee Martin led the Vols to their first national championship in over four decades.

Watch the story of the 1999 Fiesta Bowl here. 

Before You Leave, Check This Out