National Championship; SEC Championship; No. 2 AP; W Orange Bowl
Although the 1998 team is the most talented Tennessee football team of all time, the 1938 team is the most memorable one. No other season was more significant when it came to establishing the Vols as a national program.
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Remember, the Vols had two undefeated seasons up to that point. Gen. Robert Neyland, in his first stint with the Vols that lasted seven years, won two Southern Conference titles and had five undefeated seasons to give UT four conference titles and eight undefeated seasons in school history.
However, this was his third year in his second stint. And since joining the SEC in 1933, the Vols had failed to lose fewer than two games a year. So the question began as to whether or not they could maintain any level of dominance in this conference.
This was the year Neyland proved they could. Early in his second stint, he began luring top talent to Rocky Top, and guys like Bowden Wyatt, George Cafego, Bob Suffridge, Ed Molinski and Abe Shires emerged as superstars this year. In the process, the Vols went 10-0 in the regular season, notably shutting out the eventual 7-1-1 Alabama Crimson Tide 13-0 on the road.
It was their first SEC Championship in school history, and this was also the first season in which they would be recognized as national champions. But things got even more significant. Tennessee football would go on to play in its first bowl game, beating the Oklahoma Sooners 17-0 in the Orange Bowl.
So the Vols here enjoyed their first bowl win, their first SEC title and their first official national title. You can’t get more meaningful than that. It also began a run of three straight undefeated regular seasons and was part of a 23-game overall winning streak and a 15-game streak of beating and shutting out opponents.
This marked the peak era for Tennessee football in every way, and that’s why we have it at No. 1 on the list. Sure, the 1998 team is more modern and more talented, but the 1938 Vols were the team in the nation to deal with and marked what Neyland meant to the program.