Tennessee leads FSU 14-9 at halftime
Sloppy play, strong defense key first half at Fiesta Bowl
Posted: Monday January 04, 1999 10:09 PM
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -- Tennessee can feel it. One more win. A perfect season. The national championship. At long last.
The top-ranked Volunteers play No. 2 Florida State for the national title Monday night in the Fiesta Bowl, well aware of the game's significance.
"Tennessee was not a program that you could ignore the last couple of years, but this is the next step, a key hump for us," Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We like being at this level."
In Fulmer's six full seasons as coach, the Vols have steadily climbed to the top of the college football elite. Beating Florida State, firmly entrenched as one of the top teams in the game today, would lift the Volunteers into the same stratosphere.
"A lot of people haven't looked at this Tennessee program as playing for the national title," linebacker Raynoch Thompson said. "But I feel if we win it, we will be up there with Florida State, Nebraska and Florida."
Florida State's Bobby Bowden has been where Fulmer is now. It took Bowden nearly 40 years of coaching to win a national title, and he knows a championship team when he sees one.
"He'll get it, he's got too good a program," Bowden said, "but I hope he doesn't do it Monday night."
The Vols just might. Even though Tennessee is a 5 1/2-point underdog, the Vols turned aside every challenge -- a one-point win over Syracuse, an overtime thriller against Florida, a lucky break-win over Arkansas, a come-from-behind win over Mississippi State in the SEC title game -- to finish 12-0.
And they did it with versatile Tee Martin at quarterback, not folk-hero Peyton Manning, who in four years set many records but couldn't get the Vols into the title game.
Florida State, meanwhile, lost to North Carolina State 24-7 in its second game, but oddsmakers still like the Seminoles based on big-game experience and a big-time defense.
"We don't get a whole lot of respect," Vols defensive tackle Darwin Walker said. "People said this team was lucky, but we've earned everything we've gotten. There's not one speck of luck. Everything you see, we deserve."
There's a lot to see on Fulmer's resume. Since replacing Johnny Majors, the Vols have won 85.7 percent of their games (66-11) -- the best career winning percentage among active coaches.
There have also been four straight Top 10 finishes in The Associated Press poll, a 44-5 record the past four years and consecutive Southeastern Conference titles. Not bad for a team rich in tradition but looking for its first national title since 1951.
Bowden spent 18 seasons in Tallahassee before winning a national title, and he often talks about his sense of relief after finally reaching the top. Fulmer hopes he can do it in one-third the time it took Bowden.
"If we win, then early in my career I'd have that weight lifted off my back," Fulmer said. "We expect at some point to win a national championship, hopefully this year."
It better not take 18 years.
"We won't last 18 years," Fulmer said. "We've got to get it quicker than that."
During the 1990s, Tennessee's annual quest for national acclaim usually ended with an early-season loss to Florida. Not even Manning could pull out a win, but Martin stepped in and the five-game skid mercifully ended -- Vols 20, Gators 17, in OT.
And the road to Tempe was opened. Even Bowden, foiled many times before by Florida, knew how important the victory was for the Vols.
"He'd been overshadowed by Florida and overshadowed in the conference," Bowden said. "Then he won the conference championship and now he's going for the national championship. I would say he has arrived. He didn't arrive five years ago. He arrived now."
Fulmer's new contract also arrived last week in the form of $1 million a year for the next six seasons. He must be doing something right.
He is. Tennessee's recruiting classes have been rated among the best the past few years, and the Vols already have commitments from Chris Simms and A.J. Suggs -- two of the nation's top-rated high school quarterbacks.
He's worked on trying to keep his staff together, although longtime assistant David Cutcliffe left to coach Mississippi after 18 seasons with the Vols. Defensive coordinator John Chavis has been aboard since 1989, and Randy Sanders, promoted to offensive coordinator to replace Cutcliffe, was a former Tennessee backup quarterback in the mid-1980s.
Fulmer says teams like Florida State and Nebraska have set the standard for building powerhouses, and he wants to do the same.
"You have to consider how they've done things, and how Bobby Bowden has been so successful for so long," Fulmer said. "What we've tried to do in recruiting and in continuity of staff is what you see Florida State do."
At Florida State, fans expect nothing less than a national title. And Bowden usually has his team in the mix until the end. If not for an occasional loss to Miami or to Florida there, the Seminoles could have three, maybe four, titles by now.
"We'd like to think we can spoil the people at Tennessee like coach Bowden has at Florida State," Fulmer said.
The Vols can start with a win Monday night.
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