On the campus in Knoxville this goofy thing called Peyton mania
has become a wee bit ridiculous. PEYTON'S BACK! T-shirts.
PEYTON'S BACK! pictures. PEYTON'S BACK! socks. PEYTON'S BACK!
hats. PEYTON'S BACK! underwear, hair implants, blenders,
screwdriver sets, nail-polish remover. Peyton's Back! the Spice
Girls album. When it comes to hailed and hyped college football
heroes, Peyton Manning is peerless.
That said, for this season in Knoxville to be any different from
the last 45 (read: decent record but no national championship),
Manning, the Volunteers' returning quarterback and the nation's
leading Heisman Trophy candidate, needs Peerless--junior wide
receiver Peerless Price, who caught 32 passes for 609 yards last
fall but broke his right foot during Tennessee's spring game.
Price (whose mother chose his name while flipping through a
dictionary) underwent surgery the day after suffering the
injury; he was practicing with the team by August. "I'm
playing," says Price, a 4.3 speedster in the mold of Tennessee's
supreme deep threats, Willie Gault, Alvin Harper and Carl
Pickens. "There's no way they can keep me off the field." With
Manning throwing to Price and senior wideout Marcus Nash (53
catches, 688 yards), the Vols could field the most daunting
aerial act since wrestler Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka took his last
leap from the top rope.
Although both running back spots are up for grabs (star tailback
Jay Graham graduated) and the offensive line is in a state of
flux (junior tackle Jarvis Reado's return from a broken leg is
essential), Tennessee should have little trouble scoring points.
"With Peyton back there's nothing we can't accomplish," says
Price, an Ohio native who passed up basketball scholarship
offers for Saturday afternoons filled with Rocky Top. "Peyton's
got all the tools they talk about, and probably some more you
see only if you're catching his passes. How many teams can say
they have an NFL quarterback starting for them?"
The Vols also have an NFL-caliber pass rusher in Leonard Little,
an all-SEC end with a dash of Lawrence Taylor, a pinch of Mark
Gastineau and 19.5 sacks in less than two full seasons. Coach
Phillip Fulmer likes to place the 6'3", 247-pound Little all
over the field and let him rip, which he did despite missing
five games with ligament damage in his right knee. His rise has
mirrored Tennessee's. Two years ago the Vols had one of the
SEC's most inconsistent defenses; last season they led the
conference in total defense (giving up 236.5 yards per game),
scoring defense (14.3 points) and passing efficiency defense
Led by Little and 245-pound senior end Jonathan Brown (6.5 sacks
in '96), Tennessee averages a modest 256 pounds on the front
line but has good team speed. Its defensive backs, however, are
erratic; they can be dazzlingly impressive (surrendering only
120 yards passing in the Vols' 41-3 victory over Mississippi a
year ago) or egregiously bad (allowing four touchdowns in the
first 20 minutes of last season's 35-29 loss to Florida). As
much as he has improved Tennessee, defensive coordinator John
Chavis has never had a player who was among the nation's leaders
in interceptions. This year should be no different.
No one will carp about that shortcoming if the Volunteers topple
Florida, a team that to Tennessee has quickly become what
Evander Holyfield is to Mike Tyson. Price, for one, thinks it
could happen. "Florida's a great team," says Price. "But we're a
great team too." Come Sept. 20 in Gainesville, the debate will
7,382 Yards quarterback Peyton Manning has passed for in his
three seasons, ranking him ninth on the SEC alltime list. If he
matches last year's total of 3,287 yards, he'll move up to fifth
place in Division I-A, just ahead of Fresno State's Kevin Sweeney.
TWO GAMES TO WATCH
SEPT. 20 at FLORIDA This isn't the only game that matters to the
Vols, but it's the one they'd most love to win.
OCT. 8 at ALABAMA After an 0-8-1 stretch versus the Crimson Tide
from 1986 to '94, Tennessee has Alabama's number. The Vols could
win their third straight against the Tide for the first time
Passing Peyton Manning Sr. 243 comp., 380 att.,
3,287 yds., 20 TDs
Rushing Mark Levine Jr. 200 yds., 3 TDs
Receiving Marcus Nash Sr. 53 catches, 688 yds., 3 TDs
Tackles LB Al Wilson Jr. 87
Interceptions CB Terry Fair Sr. 4