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What Made the ‘98 Team Different, Part 1: Depth

by | Aug 3, 2019 | Tennessee Volunteer History, VOL Articles

All fans, regardless of team, have particular teams that they have a connection with in their program’s history. For fans of the University of Tennessee football program, that team is the 1998 Vols. The ‘98 Volunteers are remembered for defying all odds to finish 13-0 and become the 1998 National Champions. In this new series exclusive to the Volunteer Roadshow, we will be looking at just what made the 1998 National Championship winning Volunteer Squad excel and accomplish what few teams in history have.

Today we will be covering the depth that the Volunteers had during the golden era of Tennessee Athletics, I spoke with our own Billy Ratliff, former Tennessee DT and member of the Class of 1995, to try and obtain a more clear understanding of the kind of talent and depth that Coach Fulmer had during this era on Rocky Top.

The first question I asked Billy was about how the players at Tennessee reacted to the depth of the program. I wanted to find out if they ever had players that wanted to get out of the program or if his teammates mostly embraced the challenge. Billy responded to my question by saying that it wasn’t too much talent for him personally because when he got to Tennessee he was converted to the defensive line, and his speed gave him a massive advantage. But Ratliff also made it clear that he could definitely see how some of his teammates could be frustrated and want to quit. “For me it wasn’t because my speed gave me an advantage at the defensive line position. But for other guys they didn’t give up even though it would have been easy too, they fought through hard times and we exceeded because of it.”

Back then the transfer portal wasn’t an option, and Billy’s teammates ended up fighting even harder to try to overcome their challenges, which ended up being one of the reasons why Billy and his teammates were so successful during one of the most winningest periods in Tennessee Football history. Billy’s response was deep, and it showed me that the College Football world that he played in was a lot different than the College Football world that we are living in today. The reason Tennessee was so successful was because they embraced adversity instead of trying to transfer and take the easy way out, something that is a rarity today. In other words, the reason why few (if any) teams today compare to athletic programs in Billy Ratliff’s era of College Football is because of the transfer portal. If there are multiple guys fighting for a starting job and they are evenly matched, the player that failed to win the starting job will transfer out of the program. This will create a larger gap between the starting and backup positions, therefore creating a decrease in depth.

Billy also pointed out to me that in 1998, Tennessee had so much depth at tailback that they had to stick Shawn Bryson at fullback. “We had so much depth that our NFL Caliber halfback (Bryson) had to play at fullback.” This speaks for itself, the fact that Shawn Bryson was forced to play fullback because of how loaded Tennessee was at tailback is literally insane. Shawn Bryson was a 3rd Rounder in the 1999 NFL Draft and went on to lead the Buffalo Bills in rushing with 591 yards in the year 2000, and wasn’t good enough to be a tailback at Tennessee. That’s the kind of loaded you almost never see in today’s College Football world because of the transfer portal. It begs the question if the transfer portal was available when Shawn Bryson was at Tennessee, would he have transferred, or would he have stayed in Knoxville and fight the adversity like he did in the 90’s? It is a question we will never know that we will never have the answer to, but one can speculate that he would transfer to a program where he could play tailback, and take depth away from Tennessee.

In short, the depth that powerhouse programs like Tennessee had in the 90’s was simply unreal, and in today’s world of College Football it is something you’ll never see because of the transfer portal. The transfer portal sucks the adversity and toughness out of College Football, and like it or not it evens out the playing field because it takes the kind of depth like Tennessee had in the 90’s out of College Football.

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