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1998 National Champions: Defense dominates Dawgs

Al Wilson and the defense shine in a top ten SEC road matchup against Georgia.
Al Wilson #27 of the Tennessee Volunteers sitting on the bench resting during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Game against the Florida State Seminoles. The Volunteers defeated the Seminoles 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Tom Hauck /Allsport


The phrase, "defense wins championships" is one of the oldest in the coach-speak book. In October of 1998, if the country was questioning whether or not No. 4 Tennessee could contend for the first ever BCS championship, the defense was ready to show it was up for the challenge.

It starts with senior linebacker, and one of the best leaders in program history, Al Wilson. Wilson missed the Auburn game the week before after suffering a shoulder injury against Houston. He stepped up in a big way in his return, recording two sacks, keeping Georgia quarterback Quincy Carter on his toes all game.

This defense forced turnovers all game, starting with the second play from scrimmage for the Bulldogs; a fumbled snap recovered by the Vols. Deon Grant and Dwayne Goodrich each intercepted Carter in Athens. The Georgia quarterback was coming off of a stellar performance against then No. 6 LSU, throwing for 318 yards and two touchdowns.

The Georgia offense couldn't get anything going on the ground either. In the first half, Tennessee held UGA to 15 rushing yards, converting just one of eight third downs..

It's a good thing the defense was playing as well as it did, because the Tennessee offense needed some time to get things going against Georgia. UT was coming off three straight quarters without points against Auburn and the struggles would continue early. On the first play after the previously mentioned fumbled snap, with the ball inside the red zone, quarterback Tee Martin targeted wide receiver Peerless Price, who was running a slant on the left side of the field. The ball was overthrown and intercepted by Georgia star Champ Bailey.

The first quarter was a battle between kickers, with Jeff Hall and and Georgia kicker Hap Hines trading field goals to make it a 3-3 game.

In the second quarter, Martin threw another interception, this time coming off of play action at mid-field. The second turnover seemed to be a wake up call of sorts for the signal caller; Martin put together two solid drives before the end of the half, giving Hall an opportunity for two more field goals. Tennessee led 9-3 at halftime.

During the 1998 season, when Martin struggled throwing the ball, he made things happen with his legs. The third quarter against Georgia was a prime example of that. Martin pushed the ball inside the Georgia 10-yard line with a 33-yard scramble, finding wide receiver Cedrick Wilson a few plays later on a quick out for the first touchdown of the game. Later in the third, once again inside the red zone, Martin got the ball quickly to Price out wide. The shifty receiver had room to work with in open space. He made a move and got into end zone again for the Vols.

Tennessee beat No. 7 Georgia, 22-3. While there were no rushing touchdowns, there was reason to be optimistic about the ground game. Tennessee made it clear they would embrace a running back by committee approach for the rest of 1998 as they tried to replace star back Jamal Lewis, who injured his knee against Auburn. A combination of Travis Stephens, Travis Henry, Shawn Bryson and Tee Martin gave Tennessee enough against Georgia to win.

Two weekends into October and the number of undefeated teams was starting to drop around the country. The same day the Vols beat Georgia, No. 2 Nebraska lost to Texas A&M, 28-21. Things were looking good for UT. Soon they would be, as defensive back Steve Johnson sang on the sideline in Athens, "moving on up."

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