When Nebraska and Tennessee last met on the national stage, it set in motion the start of the Bowl Championship Series and culminated in two national championships.
The 1998 Orange Bowl was not much of a game -- the Huskers won 42-17 -- but it was enough of a dismantling that the national coaches crowned Nebraska its 1997 national champion, splitting the title with Michigan, which was voted No. 1 by the Associated Press. After the voting split, the BCS was formed to overcome any future debates.
For Tennessee, the bowl game taught the Volunteers a lesson that needed to be learned.
"We weren't as physical a running team as we should have been," says Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer. "We focused on running the football better."
"It showed us that we have to play four quarters," says Tennessee safety Deon Grant. "That game two years ago left a bitter taste in our mouth."
Travis Henry and the Volunteers are returning to Tempe, where they won the national title last January.
The Vols learned well from the bowl defeat, producing the school's second national championship last year.
Neither team will win a national title this season, but No. 5 Tennessee will return to the site of the school's most important victory on Sunday for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Sunday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) against the school that taught it how to win, No. 3 Nebraska.
"We want to end the season right," says Volunteer defensive end Will Overstreet. "We're up and ready as we can be. It's definitely a game where we want to earn their respect."
Nebraska thought it had a chance to contend for the national championship in New Orleans against No. 1 Florida State, but its four-point loss to Texas was too much to overcome the perfect season that No. 2 Virginia Tech produced.
"We realize the Fiesta Bowl is a very important bowl in itself, and we are very honored just to be going to that bowl," says Nebraska running back Dan Alexander. "We thought Virginia Tech was a great team. They went undefeated, and deserved a shot. We think that we could have been up there too, but that is not the way the cards fell. We have to be happy with what we have. I haven't heard anyone griping or complaining that we are not there. We know that we could be there, but we made some mistakes. It's just a matter of getting down to the Fiesta Bowl, and getting that done and handling what we can handle right now."
For Nebraska to challenge for the national championship this year was an accomplishment after the team posted the program's worst record in 30 years in '98, and all the chaos the team endured this fall.
"I feel really good for Coach (Frank) Solich," says Nebraska linebacker Julius Jackson. "To go from going 9-4 last year to 11-1 this year is a big accomplishment for him."
Credit for Nebraska's season can be placed on three sources. First, Solich did not lose his squad after I-back DeAngelo Evans quit the team, and Solich shifted Eric Crouch to quarterback and Bobby Newcombe to wingback.
"(Solich) came in every day and reassured us that no matter what happened, everything was going to be OK," Crouch says. "I think Coach Solich has really developed into a great head coach, and he's been able to affect a lot of players this year."
Second, the emergence of Crouch, who led the team in rushing with 889 yards and 16 touchdowns. The sophomore signal-caller returned the power to the Nebraska option, and was also a threat in the air, throwing for seven touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception in seven games, a span of 123 attempts.
With Crouch running the show, the Husker offense looked as powerful as ever in the final four games of the season.
"They have a quarterback, a guy that is real fast, and they put him in position to make plays by running the option," Fulmer says.
Finally, the Nebraska defense proved to be one of the best ever in Lincoln. Led by All-American defensive backs Mike and Ralph Brown (no relation) and linebacker Carlos Polk, the Cornhuskers ranked sixth in rushing defense, fourth in total defense, and third in scoring defense.
The Huskers also set a school record this fall with 54 sacks, including seven by nose tackle Steve Warren and 6.5 by Polk.
Just like Nebraska, Tennessee had an inside shot at the national title game this year before losing to Arkansas on Nov. 13.
Tennessee's national resurgence dates back to the '98 Orange Bowl. Peyton Manning was injured and Fulmer was not sure if the prized quarterback was going to be available, so sophomore Tee Martin ran the No. 1 offense during practice. Instead of the dropback passing game suited for Manning, the Volunteers became a more balanced offense.
Manning was pronounced healthy in the final days of preparation, and moved back into the starting lineup, which did not sit well with a young Martin.
"I didn't watch a series until the series before (I played)," Martin recalls. "I was just sitting there. I watched a few defensive plays. I didn't expect to play. It was hard."
Martin came in late in the game, and led the Vols on an 80-yard scoring drive. Not until he was leading Tennessee towards the national championship last year did he realize that Manning had earned the right to play.
"He paid his dues," Martin now says. "It was something I had to understand. You build up your expectations and emotions. Coming into the season, I knew it was going to be like that."
The shellacking that the Volunteers took at the hands of the Huskers' No. 1-ranked defense showed that the program needed to shift its mentality. Since Martin moved into the starting lineup, Tennessee has increased its speed and power games, and gone 22-2.
This year, the senior quarterback completed 54 percent of his passes for 2,317 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also ran for 317 yards and another nine scores.
Tee Martin is 22-2 as the Vols' starting quarterback.
"I believe that Martin is the best all-around quarterback that there is," Solich says. "He can scramble and beat you on a play. He has a great throwing arm, and he can beat you through the passing game."
"He's a great leader, and he has some of the best feet that I've seen on a college quarterback," Crouch adds.
With Martin running the show, the Volunteers had one of the nation's most balanced lineups -- averaging 191 yards on the ground and 214 in the air.
In the backfield, Martin has a pair of talented running backs. Jamal Lewis missed the Vols' run at the national title last year with a knee injury, but bounced back by leading the team with 816 yards and seven scores this season. He shared the ball with Travis Henry, who rushed for 790 yards and a 6.3 average.
"Travis has played very well for us whenever he has been called upon," Fulmer says. "He's a guy who can get you the tough yards. I am very pleased and excited about his progress, and the fact that he has stepped up when we needed him most."
"I think it will be the biggest test the Blackshirts will receive," Solich says. "Trying to stop a great, mobile quarterback, excellent running backs and excellent receivers and a very fine offensive line will be no small task for us."
Defensively, the Vols held opponents to just 2.7 yards per rush and just three rushing touchdowns. Arkansas freshman Cedric Cobbs was the only running back to rush for more than 100 yards on the Tennessee defense.
Led by linebacker Raynoch Thompson, the Volunteer defense stifled ground games to just 89.6 yards a game, seventh best in the country.
The pass defense was just as strong. Led by Grant, who picked off nine passes, the Vols intercepted 21 passes -- third-best in the nation.
"It will be a challenge to our offense to get things done," Solich says.
Tennessee celebrated all night long in Tempe, Ariz., last January after winning the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and the national championship. There will be no championship on Sunday, but for both teams, there is a history that each team knows: a bowl game victory can often lead to bigger and better things.