Watch Video of the Most Important Tennessee-Vandy Game Ever
In 1926, Robert Neyland began his stewardship as the head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Professor Dougherty gave Neyland the assignment: “Even the score with Vanderbilt. Do something about the terrible series standings.” Before then, Vanderbilt held a gaudy 18-2-1 record over the Vols. Neyland’s Vols performed marvelously, compiling a record of 16-3-2 against the Commodores in 21 years. Neyland’s Vols went on to an overall record of 173-31-12, while shutting out nearly half of their opponents. That’s why there is a stadium bearing his name.
It seemed though the only thing that would escape Neyland going into the 1950s as his career was winding down was the National Championship. There had been some close calls. Especially the undefeated 1938 team that finished No. 2 in the polls. And even the 1939 Vol squad that finished the regular season not only undefeated but also unscored upon – they somehow finished second as well. Tennessee came close again in 1950, losing only to Mississippi State 7-0 and finishing No. 4 in the AP poll and 3rd in the brand-new coaches poll.
But 1951 finally proved different.
Tennessee was ranked Number One in the pre-season AP poll just above Michigan State. Tennessee had 60 of the 115 first-place votes. But after the first week’s games, The Vols fell to the Number Three ranking behind the Spartans and Cal even though Tennessee opened their season with a 14-0 revenge win over Mississippi State. The Vols went on and squashed Duke in a shutout, smashed Chattanooga, then defeated Alabama in the first nationally televised game for both schools, regaining the Number One spot in the polls.
Then the Vols shutout Tennessee Tech and North Carolina, and manhandled Washington and Lee, but fell to Number Two in the AP poll behind Michigan State. The Vols regained the Number One spot after demolishing Ole Miss while Michigan State squeaked by Indiana. Tennessee then blanked Kentucky, the fifth shutout of the season.
Sitting at Number One, undefeated at 9-0, all that was standing in the way between the Vols and their first consensus National Championship was their old nemesis, Vanderbilt, at 6 wins and 4 losses. It all nearly unraveled in Neyland Stadium on December 1, 1951.
The Vols got off to a 21-0 lead and it looked like a coronation was in store. But the Commodores came back and eventually were within one at 28-27 behind the tremendous passing of Bill Wade. Near the end of the game, Tennessee were trying to run out the clock when Ed Morgan broke loose on a reverse and made it to the Vanderbilt 3 yard line. The Vol All-American Andy Kozar then scored a TD to make the final 35-27. The game was certainly more in the balance than the final score made it appear.
The Vols were voted National Champions in both the AP and the coaches polls – their first consensus national championship. A fitting tribute to the Tennessee Volunteers that had been built by Robert Neyland. But it was almost spoiled by the Vols long-standing rival and nemesis.
Doing a simple Google search, I discovered these gems: two 16-minute films of that 1951 Tennessee-Vanderbilt game played in Neyland Stadium. No commentary necessary, other than to say it is simply amazing to watch.
The Big Orange: A Story of Tennessee Football. Russ Beeb.