TEMPE, Ariz. -- The verdict is in: You can't win a national championship without a quarterback.
Florida State tried last night, but, in the end, Marcus Outzen left them no out.
History will show that No. 1 Tennessee won its first national championship since 1951 with a 23-16 victory over the second-ranked Seminoles.
The Volunteers overcame the graduation of Peyton Manning, the loss of running back Jamal Lewis and several harrowing finishes to go 13-0.
But let's not wax too poetic about its Fiesta Bowl victory when Florida State played without an offense, and Tennessee nearly blew leads of 14-0 and 23-9.
"Not to take anything away from Tennessee," Outzen said, "but we lost it ourselves."
And still, as bad as the Seminoles were, they had a chance to tie after recovering a fumble at their own 10 with 1: 29 left.
Outzen forced the ball deep on the next play, and was intercepted.
He was fourth-string last season. Third-string in spring practice. Second-string as late as Nov. 7.
You expected Charlie Ward?
The Seminoles indeed beat themselves, committing 12 penalties for 110 yards, but with Outzen at quarterback, they never had a chance.
You can't be too hard on the kid, a sophomore from Fort Walton Beach, Fla. He was recruited as a strong safety. He never projected as a starter, much less one in a national championship game.
Outzen only became the backup when Dan Kendra tore up his knee in spring practice and the starter when Chris Weinke suffered a season-ending neck injury Nov. 7.
His nickname is "Rooster," in honor of his red buzz cut.
Alas, the game was played in prime time, not at the crack of dawn.
"I don't think I lost the game for us," Outzen said. "The team lost the game, in every aspect. We hurt ourselves."
Yet Tennessee failed to earn a resounding victory. As Florida did when it beat FSU, 52-20, for the national championship two years ago and Nebraska did when it beat Florida, 62-24, for the '96 title.
Just imagine if Weinke had been healthy. Travis Minor rushed for 83 yards. Peter
Warrick delivered an electrifying 50-yard punt return. The Seminoles' defense forced four turnovers.
But with Outzen, it wasn't enough.
Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin set up one score with a 76-yard pass to Peerless Price in the first quarter, and sealed the victory with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Price midway through the fourth.
Price caught four passes for 199 yards. Warrick caught one for 7 yards.
End of story.
"I don't know if it was Peter Warrick as much as the inexperience at quarterback," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Outzen completed nine of 22 passes for 145 yards and ran for a 7-yard touchdown, but he was clearly overmatched.
In the first half alone, he was charged with a fumble after a deflected lateral, threw an interception for a touchdown and was responsible for two penalties after FSU had a first down at the Tennessee 5.
It was a disastrous performance by any measure, but coach Bobby Bowden's only other option was freshman Jared Jones, who had thrown six passes in his college career.
Marcus Madness prevailed.
The ragged play on both sides presented a strong case for 11-1 Ohio State as national champion -- or maybe even 12-0 Tulane, conquerors of Army, Navy and Southwestern Louisiana.
Actually, the game amounted to a ringing endorsement for a college football playoff. Neither of these teams played in December, and it showed.
"We were very, very rusty. They were, too," Bowden said. "Both of us were off way too long."
Tennessee missed a field-goal attempt and lost fumbles at the Florida State 37 and 10. Martin threw an interception with a 14-0 lead and another into the end zone.
Florida State dropped a snap on an extra point, among other mistakes.
Outzen looked slightly more comfortable in the second half, but FSU's first four possessions started at its own 23, 16, 9, 1. Nothing doing.
FSU fans joked nervously about the team's offense being reduced to "three-and-Outzen" after Weinke's injury.
As it turned out, they weren't far off.
Outzen performed unevenly in his first start, a 24-7 victory over Wake Forest. He then fumbled twice against Florida and threw a touchdown pass off a defender's hands. But FSU won, 23-12.
That game likely will stand as the highlight of Outzen's career. He couldn't produce an encore, couldn't prevent Tennessee from rolling its Lucky 13.
The Vols needed a last-second field goal to beat Syracuse. A missed 32-yard field-goal try to beat Florida in overtime. An immaculate fumble to beat Arkansas and two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Mississippi State.
Yet it's difficult to argue with the Volunteers' resolve.
Martin replaced Manning. Lewis suffered a season-ending knee injury. Three starters went down in the secondary. But Tennessee kept winning, even as 5 1/2-point underdogs last night.
You can't win a national championship without a quarterback.
Florida State never had a chance.
Pub Date: 1/05/99