The early Tennessee football teams that were powerhouse programs generally relied on lots of team play to win games. That’s why you don’t see really anybody from the Gen. Robert Neyland teams on here, or even teams coached by Bowden Wyatt, Doug Dickey or Bill Battle. But George Cafego is one exception.
Even in his era of football, where the quarterback was minimal, he was a standout player. Neyland knew it, and so did everybody else. But nobody could stop him. Cafego’s play was the reason for the Vols’ first officially recognized national championship in 1938, when they went 11-0.
Despite Neyland trying to hide him in Tennessee’s 7-0 win over the Auburn Tigers, he still stood out for Bear Bryant, just a scout for the Alabama Crimson Tide, to notice him and note that they would have to find a way to stop him the next week. They didn’t.
Cafego scored two touchdowns to deliver a 13-0 victory for the Vols against the Tide in a game that became the difference in the SEC standings that year. Then came the Vols’ first bowl game, the Orange Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners. Cafego laid a major hit that was said to set the tone for the game early, and he also had a great return to set up the first score en route to a 17-0 win.
The Vols went undefeated, untied and unscored on in the 1939 regular season, but we’ve been using the 1938 season as our examples because they were able to avoid the top four SEC teams in ’39, so there were no big games for Cafego. Still, those three in 1938 put him on this list.
Then there’s the biggest thing that puts him on the list. Look at what happen in the one big game he didn’t play. After that incredible 1939 year, Cafego wasn’t able to play in the bowl game against the USC Trojans. Tennessee lost that one 14-0. That’s how valuable he was in big games, and it’s enough to put him high on this list.