With help from a remarkable 79-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter by the appropriately named Peerless Price, No. 1-ranked Tennessee held on for a tense 23-16 victory over No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl tonight, finishing a stirring run to its first national championship since the 1951 season. The Volunteers (13-0) recorded their first undefeated season since 1938, and it came one year after folk hero quarterback Peyton Manning's departure. Along the way, they silenced any critics who wondered if their three close victories during the season portended a major collapse in the face of the strongest defensive team in the nation. As a result, Tennessee was awarded the national championship trophy on the field immediately after the game. And with one ballot outstanding, the Volunteers earned all 69 first-place votes in the final Associated Press media poll. Ohio State (11-1), the Sugar Bowl champion, was second. Florida State (11-2) finished third, marking the 12th consecutive season it has ended in the top four. "We knew as a football team that we had to prove to everyone we were worthy of being the number one team in the nation," junior quarterback Tee Martin said on the field after the game. "We were the only people who believed we could win." An underdog despite its ranking and record, Tennessee had to survive several late scares. First, there was a seven-yard touchdown run by Florida State quarterback Marcus Outzen that made the score 23-16 with 3 minutes 42 seconds to play. It was followed by an onside kick that appeared to have been recovered by Florida State place kicker Sebastian Janikowski. But game officials ruled that Janikowski had touched the ball before it had gone the required 10 yards, and replays indicated that the ball bounced up and touched Janikowski just after he kicked it. Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden had no complaints. "I think the call was accurate," said Bowden, whose team was penalized 12 times for 110 yards. "They could have missed the call, but they spotted it. Somehow the ball hit him. The call was a good one by the officials." Tennessee took possession and drove toward a game-clinching score, but tailback Travis Henry fumbled at the Florida State 10-yard line with 1:29 remaining. Linebacker Brian Allen recovered. However, given one last chance to tie the game and possibly send it into overtime, Bowden elected to call a deep pass play on first down. Outzen heaved the ball more than 50 yards in the air toward wide receiver Laveranues Coles. The pass was tipped by one defensive back, then intercepted by senior cornerback Steve Johnson, who had said all week he relished the task of covering Florida State's dangerous wide receivers man-to-man. Minutes later, the celebrating began in earnest among thousands of orange-clad Tennessee fans among the record crowd of 80,470, including Vice President Gore, a native of the state watching from a box up above. "Our cornerbacks did the job all night on their people," Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said. "They have great receivers over there, and our guys took it as a personal challenge. . . . Our defensive front put a lot of pressure on their quarterback. It all goes together." Florida State's defense, ranked first or second in the country in all the major categories, got most of the notice during the week-long buildup. Instead, it was Tennessee's defense that became the major story in this first national title game of the Bowl Championship Series. The Volunteers held Florida State's game-breaking wide receiver Peter Warrick in check all night, allowing him only one catch for seven yards. They constantly harassed Outzen, a sophomore who looked very much like a young man making only the fourth start of his career. Outzen was a replacement for starter Chris Weinke, who was injured late in the season against Virginia. "Our defense -- we are just unbelievably thankful for those guys," Fulmer said after winning his first national title in his seventh year as Tennessee's coach. "This team has consistently found ways to win. You can't say enough about what Peerless Price and Tee Martin did this year. But it's not one or two guys -- it's a whole team believing they could get the job done, and finally getting it done." Outzen had helped engineer Florida State's win over Florida in the last regular season game, and insisted all this past week he would not be affected by the pressure of this game. That was easier said than done however, on a night he completed only 9 of 22 passes for 145 yards, tossed up two interceptions and was sacked four times. "We were a very, very rusty football team," Bowden said. "They made more big plays than we did. They were able to get the ball to their threat {Price} and we had a hard time getting the ball to our threat. . . . We were a very sloppy football team tonight." Price, a 6-foot, 183-pound senior, was a human highlight film in a game marred by erratic play on both sides of the ball. He had a 76-yard catch in the first quarter to set up Tennessee's first touchdown of the night. Then he set a Fiesta Bowl record with his 79-yard grab for a score with 9:17 left in the fourth quarter for a game-breaking 20-9 advantage. The extra-point attempt was blocked. At that point, the Vols had been holding on to a tenuous four-point lead, and had just made a sweet stand on defense after Florida State had moved to a first down at the Tennessee 26. The Vols stiffened considerably there, and when Outzen was sacked by tackle Darwin Walker, on third down, Florida State was forced to punt. Tennessee took over at its 20, and three plays later faced a third-and-nine situation at its 21. Price found himself in single coverage against cornerback Mario Edwards. He ran a simple go route, quickly got a step on the defender and Martin laid the ball out so that he could catch it in full stride. It was a breathtaking play that marked the beginning of the end for Florida State's hopes of a second national title for Bowden. With the game scoreless in the second quarter, Price hauled in a 76-yard pass from Martin, setting up a 24-yard field goal by Jeff Hall. However, Dexter Jackson was called for a dubious roughing-the-kicker penalty when Hall took a lovely dive after little contact. Tennessee took the three points off the scoreboard and accepted a first down. Two plays later, Martin rolled to his left and found fullback Shawn Bryson open in the flat for a touchdown that gave the Vols a 7-0 lead with 14:05 left in the first half. Tennessee expanded the lead almost immediately. Cornerback Dwayne Goodrich stepped in front of down-and-out pass for Warrick, intercepted it and made a 54-yard return for a touchdown -- Tennessee's second in 25 seconds. Suddenly, the Volunteers had opened a 14-0 lead on the stunned Seminoles with 13:40 left in the second period. Florida State finally got a major break when Martin threw into double coverage deep down the middle of the field and defensive back Derrick Gibson intercepted. He returned the ball to Tennessee's 3-yard line, and three plays later, fullback William McCray scored from a yard out. But a bad snap led to a botched extra-point attempt, and Tennessee led 14-6 with 8:59 left in the half. A field goal by Janikowski late in the quarter made it 14-9 at halftime. Price had four catches for 199 yards. Martin, who had the unenviable task of replacing Manning this season, finished with 11 completions in 18 attempts for 278 yards and two touchdowns. "I knew if I gave him the chance to come down with the football, he would," Martin said of Price. "That's how it's been the whole season." Tennessee Under Phillip Fulmer Season Record Regular season loss(es) Bowl result Final AP Rank 1992* 3-0 Def. No. 16 Boston College in Hall of Fame Bowl, 38-23 12th 1993 10-2 No. 9 Florida, 41-34 Lost to No. 13 Penn State in Florida Citrus Bowl, 31-13 12th 1994 8-4 No. 14 UCLA, 25-23; No. 1 Florida, 31-0; Miss. St., 24-21; No. 10 Alabama, 17-13 Def. No. 17 Virginia Tech in Gator Bowl, 45-23 22nd 1995 11-1 No. 4 Florida, 62-37 Def. No. 4 Ohio State in Florida Citrus Bowl, 20-14 3rd 1996 10-2 No. 4 Florida, 35-29; Memphis, 21-17 Def. No. 11 Northwestern in Florida Citrus Bowl, 48-28 9th 1997 11-2 No. 2 Florida, 33-20 Lost to No. 2 Nebraska in Orange Bowl, 42-17 7th 1998 13-0 Def. No. 2 Florida State in Fiesta Bowl, 23-16 1st Achievements since the start of the 1987 season: -- 67-11 overall. -- 24-9 vs. ranked teams. -- 45-4 in past four seasons, the winningest four-year period in school history. -- 5-2 in bowl games. -- Fulmer has the best career winning percentage among active Division I-A coaches, .858 (Penn State's Joe Paterno is second at 307-80-3, .791). -- Ranked in the Associated Press media poll top 10 for 38 consecutive weeks and 50 of the past 51. -- Two consecutive Southeastern Conference championships. *Coached first three regular season games as substitute for Johnny Majors, whom he succeeded after the regular season. CAPTION: Wide receiver Peter Warrick of Florida State goes airborne, but can't catch pass as Tennessee's Dwayne Goodrich defends in the Fiesta Bowl. Goodrich later left the game with a sprained ankle. ec CAPTION: Dwayne Goodrich, center, is congratulated by Tennessee teammates after returning interception for a touchdown. ec CAPTION: Tennessee's Peerless Price, left, who caught a 79-yard scoring pass and was named the Fiesta Bowl's most valuable player, gets a hand from Jeff Hall. ec CAPTION: Florida State's Peter Warrick goes airborne, but can't reach pass as Dwayne Goodrich defends. Goodrich returned an interception for a touchdown, and also helped limit Warrick to one reception. ec CAPTION: Tennessee's Peerless Price, who caught a 79-yard scoring pass, was named the Fiesta Bowl's most valuable player. ec