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 No. 1, but had company - Kansas State and UCLA were also both undefeated and playing on this December Saturday.
The Wildcats were 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 the computer polls and strength of schedule, and if they beat Mississippi State, they should have enough to get in. But in the first year of this crazy system, who knew for sure?
The Vols played last on this day at 8:00 PM, and players and fans both pulled hard for either UCLA or Kansas State to fall beforehand to take all the guesswork out of the equation.
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. My Dad and I were driving down I-75 to Atlanta for the game, and managed to find the end of this one on the radio right as we pulled alongside another member of the Vol caravan to ATL, who we could see inside their car were also going crazy. I'm surprised more wrecks don't happen in moments like this one.
Controversy was avoided, and it would be Kansas State and Tennessee squaring off for the title, surely.
As the Big 12 Championship Game kicked off that afternoon, in Atlanta the Vols could focus solely on the task at hand: beating Mississippi State, winning the SEC for two straight years, and getting to Arizona.
The opponent 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 bit 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.
The matchup instead found Tennessee 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.
Inside the building, this wasn't the fifty-fifty split the Vols had seen in this game the year before against Auburn. The '98 version was a glorified home game, with probably eighty-five percent of the crowd in orange, ready to see history. The fact that Atlanta is only three hours from Knoxville means that even last season, with LSU playing for a spot in the National Championship and Tennessee at 9-3 and playing for nothing more than the Sugar Bowl, the Vol faithful can show up in large numbers and invade the dome. On that night last December and on this one ten years ago, the Vols had the numbers and their faithful aimed to will the team to victory if need be.
The game 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 one of the most true Tennessee sayings I know is this: the Vols do not play well in the Georgia Dome.
Lifetime, Tennessee is 2-5 in the building between five SEC Championship Games and two Peach Bowl losses to Maryland and Clemson following the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Their two wins were of the fortunate kind: the '98 game we'll describe in further detail, and the '97 SEC Championship against Auburn, where the Vols turned it over six times and saw an extra point attempt blocked and ran back for a touchdown...and still somehow won 30-29.
The most heartbreaking loss in Tennessee history, for my money, was the 2001 SEC Championship Game, where the No. 2 Vols had a ticket punched for the Rose Bowl and a date with Miami for the title, and were up 17-7 on an LSU team playing without Rohan Davey and LaBrandon Toefield...
...and then watched LSU rally to tie and then take the lead, and when the Vols tried to answer late in the game, they had 1st and goal at the 4 and got only a field goal, then fumbled twice in the 4th quarter to seal the deal. I can't talk about this one anymore.
The Vols also ran into undefeated Auburn in 2004 and eventual National Champion LSU last season, and played fairly well in both games, but both times came up short.
Don't get me started on the basketball team in the Georgia Dome. Let's hope the tornado that hit it during the SEC Tournament took our bad vibes down in the process.
On this night in '98, despite the defensive heroics, the Vol offense kept Mississippi State in the game for three and a half 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, the guy who lost out to Peyton Manning for the starting job in Knoxville four years earlier did his old school a favor. Brandon Stewart helped 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 went on to lose their bowl games and two teams I really think the Vols would've handled easily in Tempe - the choice of opponents would now be much more dangerous.
Sitting at home and I'm sure watching gleefully were Florida State and 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 respectable and much more talented.
Whether they knew it or not, Florida State fans could celebrate once Texas A&M had sealed the win. But Ohio State fans still had a shot to get to the promised land too, because the Vols just couldn't put Mississippi State away...
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 when the ensuing drive started, after moving the ball across midfield 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 from scrimmage.
Wayne Madkin was hit, fumbled, and the Vols recovered at the 26 yard line. And David Cutcliffe - in his last game as offensive coordinator 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 last twenty years, in 1989-1990, and again in 1997-1998. Only the Florida Gators can boast of such a feat in the same timespan.
And in the moment, 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. This was the final stop on the road to Tempe.