Faced with meeting No. 1 Tennessee on the road after an emotionally draining week for his team, Kentucky coach Hal Mumme gathered his players in the cramped visitors' locker room at Neyland Stadium last Saturday afternoon just before kickoff and read words that he had taken from Scripture and scribbled in his own hand at the bottom of his offensive play sheet. Mumme recited the first verse of Psalm 144: Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight. Then he shouted, "We've got a fight on our hands today. Let's take it to them."
Think of these words as an attempt to level the spiritual playing field, because only a day earlier Mumme had described the Volunteers' magical, unbeaten season as the work of forces far beyond football. "They've had so many breaks," Mumme said. "I mean, Tennessee may beat the hell out of us, but Florida is a better team; better athletes, better coached. It's like Tennessee is touched by Divine Providence or something."
The record will show that the Vols did, in fact, beat the hell out of Kentucky, 59-21, and that the Wildcats played very much as you might expect after they'd spent their week attending funerals for a teammate and for a friend of quarterback Tim Couch's. Both were killed in a Nov. 15 truck accident in which the truck driver was Kentucky's starting center, Jason Watts, who was charged with drunk driving and second-degree manslaughter while recuperating from his injuries in a Lexington hospital. The victory guaranteed Tennessee a place in the SEC championship game (against Arkansas or Mississippi State) on Dec. 5 and moved the Volunteers one step closer to a place in the Fiesta Bowl national championship showdown. Yet Mumme remained among the unconverted. "We played so poorly that I don't know if it was us or them," he said after the rout.
It truly is lonely at the top of the college football world this fall. Tennessee is in its third consecutive week as the top team in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, yet much like its unbeaten brethren, No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Kansas State, it's held in suspicion, not just by Mumme but also by a public that seems to be waiting for a conventional superpower to arise from the rubble and expose all three of them as pretenders. That's not likely to happen. One thing is certain: It's a season for simply staying alive until January, and no team has stayed alive like the Vols.
On Sept. 5 Tennessee escaped Syracuse's Carrier Dome when junior quarterback Tee Martin, making his first start, led a game-winning drive that benefited from a controversial fourth-and-seven interference call. The Volunteers gave up 409 passing yards to Florida and won in overtime when the Gators narrowly missed a 32-yard field goal. Most remarkably, Tennessee beat previously undefeated Arkansas on Nov. 14 when Hogs quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled during a closing series in which he could have run out the clock. Such Disneyesque victories have given Tennessee immeasurable confidence. "Destiny, luck, something," says junior linebacker Raynoch Thompson. "I knew we were going to win the Arkansas game. I was trying to figure out how when their quarterback dropped the ball."
Yet to dismiss the Volunteers as the luckiest team in America is unfair. They deserve the No. 1 ranking precisely because they're the Private Ryans of survival. Florida State and Ohio State, arguably the country's two best teams, played horrifically in suffering their lone loss of the season. Tennessee has played horrifically and won (17-9 at Auburn on Oct. 3).
It's more than magic that moves the Vols. On Saturday they played without the injured Al Wilson, the soul of a defense that had allowed only 15.3 points per game coming in, and still jumped all over the potent Kentucky passing game. Tennessee came out in a nickel package and blitzed hard over backup Wildcats center Aaron Daniel. The Vols baffled Couch by showing man coverage and then bailing out into zone, and then showing zone and rolling into tight man. "Couch was confused, you could tell," said Tennessee senior cornerback Steve Johnson. As a result Couch threw for a very quiet 337 yards and two touchdowns.
The Vols' defense comprises a solid front four and terrific linebackers led by Thompson and the hyperkinetic Wilson, who has been the best linebacker in the country and whose exclusion from the list of Butkus Award finalists ( Chris Claiborne of USC, Jevon Kearse of Florida and Dat Nguyen of Texas A&M) is a shame. Despite the din created by 107,252 fans in full throat, Tennessee defenders swore on Saturday that they could hear Wilson bellowing at them from the sideline, where he limped about in street clothes. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the likes of Florida and Kentucky to take them apart surgically, the Vols have attacked from the first week of the season. Opponents have averaged less than 100 yards rushing a game and have scored only five touchdowns on the ground. Tennessee's defense would be formidable for any opponent.
The offense has no right to be effective. Peyton Manning was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and the most successful quarterback in Volunteers history. Wideout Marcus Nash was also taken in the first round. Sophomore running back Jamal Lewis, a first-rounder in training, was injured and lost for the season in the fourth game. Yet sophomores Travis Henry and Travis Stephens have rushed for more than 1,200 yards as Lewis's understudies, and senior fullback Shawn Bryson, who has a tailback's speed, scored on a 57-yarder against Florida and a 58-yard run against Kentucky. Bryson played with Manning and company. "This team is different," he says. "There's a feeling that we're all leaning on each other."
In a pinch they lean on Martin, who remains susceptible to fits of inefficiency (10 for 27, with one interception, against Arkansas) but makes plays. On Saturday he escaped to his right and threw a 55-yard second-quarter touchdown pass to Cedrick Wilson. The ball traveled 66 yards on the fly. "Special player," says Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. "He can get you out of trouble."