TEMPE, ARIZ. — While college football's first official national title game was billed as the Fiesta Bowl, in fact it was the Self-Doubters Bowl. That's because both Tennessee and Florida State had major and entirely justified concerns as to whether they truly belonged here as the honored guests.
And when the Monday night game finished Tuesday morning in the Eastern time zone - and Tennessee won 23-16 to finish the year 13-0 and become national champs for the first time in 47 years - both had demonstrated myriad times by their play that all their doubts were real. Example: The teams committed a combined 21 penalties, had seven fumbles, each quarterback threw two interceptions, plus assorted other glitches.
"We just didn't look very good," conceded disheartened but always gentlemanly FSU coach Bobby Bowden. Winning coach Philip Fulmer tried to brush off questions about the style of the win, saying that each win this season "wasn't always perfect and it wasn't always the prettiest." This one definitely fell into that mode.
No wonder Ohio State coach John Cooper suggested that his team should be No. 1. It stopped Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl and finished 11-1, which in turn prompted Bowden quickly to concede, "John might have the best football team in the nation." Self-doubt was everywhere.
Of course, Bowden's team lost to North Carolina State earlier this year, and the Wolfpack was far from the nation's elite. Such an outlandish event will cause any coach and all players to doubt their supremacy.
In November, FSU starting quarterback Chris Weinke was hurt and was replaced by inexperienced Marcus Outzen. In his first outing against Wake Forest, he bounced his first two passes, and Bowden said, "I knew that ain't the way you complete passes." Outzen came into the Self-Doubters Bowl with a season grade of C minus, achieved only because of good attendance and trying hard. Then he completed a sorrowful 9-of-22 passes here, had two interceptions, fumbled three times, and his grade plummeted.
Bowden even had doubts about Peter Warrick, his premier flanker, who sometimes drops passes when he's in the open because "his mind wanders." Not much chance for mind-wandering in this game; he caught one pass for seven yards and was understandably miffed about his lack of involvement.
Conversely, Tennessee's Tee Martin managed to complete four passes to Peerless Price for a whopping 199 yards. "Tee threw it out there," said Price afterward. "I did the easy part." His 79-yarder for a fourth-quarter score came after FSU had muddled its way to trailing only 14-9 and acted as if it might be of a mind to play better. Price's catch made it 20-9 with 9:17 left. No fat lady was singing, but she was starting to hum.
Tennessee had plenty of doubts of its own. The Vols were heartbeats away from being a 9-3 team instead of 12-0 in the regular season. They beat Syracuse in the opener on a field goal as time expired; they beat Florida the next week in overtime on a field goal; later they beat Arkansas when the losers needed only to hang on to the ball to win but somehow instead fumbled with 1:43 remaining, giving Tennessee one last chance to score.
Above all, the Vols wondered all year if they could be really good since Heisman Trophy winner Peyton Manning was last year's quarterback and he couldn't win a national championship.
Before the game, out of respect for honesty, Fulmer admitted, "We have a lot to prove." The Vols did, proving good enough to win without their A game by sublimating their doubts just enough.
In addition to Price's catches, almost all the rest of the Vols' peak efforts came within a 25-second span early in the second quarter. After Price had a 39-yard pass reception, Martin hit Shawn Bryson for a four-yard touchdown. Then on FSU's next play from scrimmage, Outzen threw an interception directly into the hands of Tennessee's Dwayne Goodrich, who cruised 54 yards for a score. The Vols abruptly were on top 14-0.
In fairness, Tennessee was able to overcome all its self-doubts and mistakes and misadventures. To do that is just as much the mark of a champ as is a great performance. Also, a 13-0 season is a solid indicator. Who deserved to be national champs? "They did," said Bowden.