Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of John Adams columns commemorating the 10th anniversary of Tennessee's 1998 national championship season. Throughout the year, former UT strong safety Fred White will offer his insight into what was going on with the team at the same time of year 10 years ago.
No one was talking national championship when Tennessee went through its winter workouts leading up to spring practice in 1998.
The goal was more basic, more personal. The returning players had something to prove.
So you couldn't fully appreciate the success of 1998 without understanding the failure that preceded it.
Never mind how much UT accomplished in 1997 - an SEC championship, 11 victories and a No. 7 national ranking - the season ended with a devastating 42-17 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The victory gave Nebraska the national championship in the coaches' poll. The defeat gave UT the impetus to win the 1998 national title.
UT had been a popular pick to win the national championship in 1997. And the team had prepared accordingly.
"We had Peyton Manning (at quarterback)," White said. "And a defense like ours. We ain't gonna lose. That's how we felt. So we worked out really hard."
A regular-season loss to Florida virtually killed UT's national championship hopes. It didn't affect the Vols' confidence. They were intent on showcasing their talent in the Orange Bowl.
White, who played mainly on special teams in 1997, went home to Griffin, Ga., before the bowl game. He remembers being kidded at the local barbershop about how good unbeaten Nebraska was.
"They had me boiling," White said. "I said. 'We're gonna kick their butt.' "
After hard, physical practices leading up to the bowl game, White was even more convinced his team would handle the Cornhuskers. Although Manning had bursitis in one knee, White had seen enough of his quarterback in practice to believe the injury wouldn't be a factor.
"We were gonna show everybody how good we were," White said.
Instead, Nebraska showed why it deserved the national championship. And the Vols received a painful lesson in what it would take to win one.
The shocking outcome was preceded by a series of mini-shocks - each one denting the Vols' confidence while reminding them they were in uncharted water.
"They were a different breed," White said.
As the teams went through pregame warm-ups, White couldn't help but notice how big Nebraska's offensive linemen were. In fact, they weren't any bigger than UT's linemen, according to the listed weights.
"But our guys weren't built like that," White said. "They looked huge."
The Cornhuskers played differently, too. They ran the ball, then ran some more, deftly knocking down UT defenders with cut blocks that quickly had the Vols playing tentatively.
"We always thought of ourselves as a physical team," White said. "We could fight and play with anybody. Bring it on. We're ready."
But they weren't ready for Nebraska.
White remembers being knocked down on kickoff coverage for the first time in high school or college. Taken aback, he conferred with fellow cover man, Eric Westmoreland.
"What's happening on your side?" White asked.
"I was on the ground," Westmoreland replied.
Nebraska began to take charge in the second quarter. As the teams prepared to return to the field for the second half, the Cornhuskers made it clear they were just getting started.
"We're about to wear you out," they told White.
"It wasn't really trash talk, the way they said it," White said. "They just said it (matter-of-factly), 'We're about to wear you out.' And they wore us out."
No matter how a game was going, White said he always expected his team would prevail.
"That feeling began to go away in the fourth quarter," he said.
White recalled all the work that had gone into the season - winter conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts - and wondered, "What did we do wrong?
"We were embarrassed."
They also were determined to do something about it.
"Nebraska was our measuring stick," White said. "They were stronger than us and just as fast. It was a rude awaking.
"But it was something we needed."
White stayed home only two days. When he and his teammates returned to UT, they began laying the groundwork for their unbeaten season.
"We had one of our best teams in '97," White said. "Then all of a sudden, we looked bad against Nebraska, lost those seniors, and people were saying we were going to be 8-4 (in 1998). We had to prove we could play."
Before they could play, they had to work. And as hard as they worked before the 1997 season, they realized they had to work even harder.
During winter workouts, the players went the extra mile on a daily basis. If a player missed a voluntary workout, teammates called him.
The message: "You better get your butt out here."
White credits his strength coach, John Stuckey, with providing added incentive when called for. Stuckey didn't mind playing the Nebraska card, either.
White remembers working out with Stuckey right in his face, shouting and prodding while bringing the weights to life.
"That's No. 50 (of Nebraska), who put you on the ground, Fred," Stuckey would say. "Get him off you, Fred. Get him off you."
"That gave you the extra edge to lift that weight," White said.
The voluntary workouts, the exhortations from Stuckey and all those 5 a.m. morning runs did the job.
"When we got ready for spring football, my body was ready," White said.
But the Nebraska game was still with him. He watched the videotape over and over, wondering how a team seemingly so talented, confident and prepared had been beaten so soundly.
He wondered the same thing on that 15-hour drive home from Miami with his parents.
"Anytime my team lost, I spent the next two days trying to figure out how we could have won the game," White said.
Neither he nor his teammates had an answer this time. No matter how many times they played the game in their mind, the conclusion was inevitable. They had lost convincingly to a national champion. But they had gained something, too.
No one would realize how much until a year later.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com.