Destiny's Darlings Unbeaten Tennessee, No. 1 in the bowl rankings if not in the eyes of insiders, ripped Kentucky to prove it can be as good as it is lucky

November 30, 1998

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."

It should not, of course, be a complete surprise that Tennessee
is at the top of the rankings. The Volunteers' recruiting classes
have been in the top 10 in the country for a decade, and
Tennessee has won at least nine games in eight of the last nine
years. Fulmer's winning percentage (.853) is the best of any
active coach. Yet there always seemed to be an Ohio State-like
cloud over the Vols, a presumption that they would slip
somewhere.

Don't count on Tennessee to fall this time. "Maybe we're lucky,"
says Fulmer, "but I believe breaks even out as time goes by.
Turnovers, officials' calls, you name it. We've had bad breaks,
too."

Martin puts it more succinctly: "It's our turn," he says. "That's
all."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS TOPFLIGHT Stephens has filled in admirably for the injured Lewis, carrying 11 times for 42 yards and a touchdown (above) on Saturday. [Travis Stephens in game]

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