This truly was one of the biggest gut-punch near-upsets in college football's history. Arkansas did not luck into a lead against No. 1 Tennessee on November 14, 1998 -- they completely and totally outplayed the Vols. And then they lost anyway. I said in talking about Alabama-Mississippi State 1992 that every national champion probably needs a little luck along the way. Tennessee in 1998 is no exception.
I've figured out the perfect coach to lead Arkansas once John L. Smith's one-year contract is up: Houston Nutt. Hear me out! Almost no coach in the country does a better job for two years than the Right Reverend. The formula is easy:
Two-Year Contract - Any Hope For A Third Year + ??? = Properity!
The numbers do back me up here, by the way.
Arkansas' Two-Year Record Pre-Nutt (1996-97): 8-14 (0.364)Arkansas' First Two Years With Nutt (1998-99): 17-7 (0.708)Arkansas' Next Eight Years With Nutt (2000-07): 58-42 (0.580)Ole Miss' Two-Year Record Pre-Nutt (2006-07): 7-17 (0.292)Ole Miss' First Two Years With Nutt (2008-09): 18-8 (0.692)Ole Miss' Next Two Years With Nutt (2010-11): 6-18 (0.250)
In his first year at Arkansas, he engineered a 4.5-game improvement and all but beat No. 1 Tennessee in Knoxville. In his first year at Ole Miss, he led a 5.5-game turnaround and did beat No. 1 Florida in Gainesville. I'm just saying ... Arkansas thrives on crazy. This would be more than crazy enough to work. SIGN HIM UP.
- You could tell that Tennessee was playing in rarefied air here. It was their first game as the No. 1 team in the country since 1956 (which seemed like it couldn't possibly be true when they said it on the broadcast), and they were ridiculously tight early on. Meanwhile, Nutt had his squad confident and ready. For all of his obvious weaknesses, Nutt was usually pretty good at getting his guys to play above their heads, at least at first.
And goodness, did Arkansas have so many opportunities to put this away. With under seven minutes left, they dropped a third-down screen pass with perfect blocking, and they had a field goal blocked on the next play. And then, of course, there was the stumble-and-fumble after the Tennessee offense turned feckless late.
- Tennessee running back Travis Henry was really, really good. We remember the defense, we remember Peerless Price, and we remember the whole "they won without Peyton Manning" thing. But Henry was almost the most valuable player on that team. He almost transferred in Summer 1998 after losing the starting job to Jamal Lewis, but when Lewis went down with a knee injury, Henry exploded. He absolutely carried the Vols offense in this game.
- Watch how quickly Phil Fulmer tries to get off the field after the game ends. It's like he didn't want fate to change its mind.
- I don't know … as a Missouri fan new to the SEC, I still don't think hearing "Rocky Top" 275 times per game is going to be worse than "Boomer Sooner." At least "Rocky Top" has more than two words…
This was Game No. 2 of what was one of college football's craziest months. Tennessee reached No. 1 after Ohio State was absolutely shocked by Nick Saban and Michigan State at home, and they tried their hardest to relinquish the top spot immediately. A few weeks later, No. 3 UCLA lost to an unranked Miami team, and No. 2 Kansas State famously lost to No. 10 in the Big 12 title game. Florida State, ranked fifth in mid-November, ended up squeaking into the Fiesta Bowl title game against the Vols. One of my favorite seasons.