11. 1998: #1 Tennessee 24 - #23 Mississippi State 14 (SEC Championship)
The final hurdle to clear before making reservations in Tempe was a second straight trip to the SEC Championship Game. The Vols were 11-0 and ranked #1, but had company - Kansas State and UCLA were also both undefeated and playing on this December Saturday, the Wildcats in the Big 12 Championship Game, and UCLA in a hurricane make-up contest against Miami. In the first year of the BCS, controversy was already on the table and waiting to rear its ugly head.
So-called experts had predicted that the Vols had enough of an advantage in computer polls and strength of schedule that, if they beat Mississippi State, should get in. But at this time, who knew for sure? And with the Vols playing last on this day at 8:00 PM, players and fans both pulled hard for one of the two giants to fall beforehand.
But what actually happened, I'm not sure anyone predicted, or wanted. First, Miami won a shootout over the Bruins in a noon kickoff, sending both Vol and Wildcat fans into a frenzy. Controversy was avoided, and it would be Kansas State and Tennessee squaring off. As the Big 12 Championship Game kicked off, the Vols could focus solely on the task at hand: beating Mississippi State, winning the SEC for two straight years, getting to Arizona.
The opponent here was supposed to be Arkansas. When the Vols narrowly escaped the Hogs 28-24 in Knoxville three weeks before, all thoughts were set on a December rematch. But then Arkansas was a big hungover from fumbling the game away against the Vols, and Jackie Sherrill's bunch caught them by surprise in the 4th quarter, stealing a victory and stealing the SEC West. And most Vol fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Tennessee was heavily favored and perhaps rightfully so, as Mississippi State was led by unknown Wayne Madkin at quarterback and prided itself on defense and special teams. But those two factors would come up huge in the Georgia Dome. With a crowd predominantly in orange, the game that unfolded was a defensive struggle from the beginning. On the day, Mississippi State's offense could do absolutely nothing - they finished with 84 yards passing and 65 yards rushing, a testament to the Vols' defensive supremacy. But Tennessee - who for my money has never played well in the Georgia Dome - kept them in it for 3.5 quarters. Near the end of the first, Tee Martin was intercepted, and the pick was returned 70 yards for a score. The Vols would score on consecutive drives in the second quarter, with a Travis Stephens plunge and a Jeff Hall field goal, to take a 10-7 lead.
It was around this time that it was announced that the Kansas State-Texas A&M Big 12 Championship had gone to overtime. And in the next few minutes, after KSU was held to a field goal, old Vol Brandon Stewart did his old school a favor, helping A&M get into the end zone and score a monumental upset. Kansas State was done.
The Vols were in the middle of their own fight at this point, but attention spans began to turn...instead of UCLA or Kansas State - two teams who lost their bowl games and who I think the Vols would've handled easily - the choice of opponents would now be much more dangerous, Florida State or Ohio State at 10-1 each. And while the computers eventually chose the Noles, the point was that the opponent had suddenly become much more dangerous.
But back to the task at hand...in the third quarter, neither team could score, but Mississippi State's complete lack of offensive production didn't have many worried. As stated, 149 total yards. So as the clock ticked down in the 4th quarter, the Vols were simply trying to hang on.
That's when Kevin Prentiss made one of the best punt returns I've ever seen, showing great vision and patience along the sideline to stay in bounds twice when I think the Vol D assumed he was out and the play was dead. Prentiss would go 83 yards into the end zone, and in the blink of an eye, Tennessee was losing in the 4th quarter, 14-10.
They don't let them do it anymore, but Mississippi State's kickoff team used to have a little team dance-type thing they would do after the team had scored, when they were lined up to kick. It's a celebration penalty now, but back then it was cool to watch...and this one was especially vibrant.
The great thing about this is, were you worried here? Really? After having been through so much in 98, I think at this point the Vols knew. With 8:43 left, the game was still well in hand. And on the ensuing drive, Tee Martin went up top for Peerless Price, hanging in the pocket just long enough before firing down the sideline. Price made the grab and got a foot in for a 41 yard touchdown, and just like that Tennessee was back on top. Price would finish as MVP with 6 catches for 97 yards.
Still, 6:15 remained. But not to be outdone, the Vol D made something happen on the very next play. Wayne Madkin was hit, fumbled, and the Vols recovered at the 26 yard line. And David Cutcliffe - in his last game before leaving for Ole Miss - went for the throat. Tee Martin found Cedrick Wilson in the end zone on the very next play, and the game was done. The Vols led 24-14, and the defense did the rest.
When the final gun sounded, thoughts instantly went towards Arizona. But in the light of the chase for a National Championship, the impact of back-to-back SEC Championships may have been a bit lost. Winning two SEC titles consecutively is a tremendous accomplishment, and the Vols have done it twice in the 1989-2005 timespan that we're using.
This was the game that shut the door, the answered all the doubters, that put the Vols in full control of their own destiny. No matter the opponent, the ticket was punched and the Vols would be ready. The final stop on the road to Tempe.