National Championship; No. 1 AP; Sugar Bowl berth
More impressive than the 1939 or 1940 teams were the 1951 team. Tennessee football had come off what could be considered a national championship in 1950, as they had one SEC loss in the second game of the season but upset Bear Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats at the end.
They could have won an SEC title off of that too, but UK just happened to play one more conference game on the schedule that year, so they got the title anyway. Still, this was the peak of Robert Neyland’s third stint.
This year, the only elite player they had lost from 1950 was Bud Sherrod. They still had Bill Pearman, Ted Daffer, Bert Rechichar, John Michels, Hank Lauricella and most famously future NFL Hall of Famer Doug Atkins. With that group, and coming off an 11-1 season, it’s no surprise the Vols started the year ranked No. 1.
Neyland’s team ran the table. One flaw with this team, though was they had to share the SEC title with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, which means that they also didn’t play the other best team in the league. But they still had more quality victories than the 1939 or 1940 teams, including the Ole Miss Rebels and the Kentucky Wildcats.
Under Bear Bryant, UK did finish the season in the top 25 again. So that win was relevant. A Sugar Bowl loss to the Maryland Terrapins that wasn’t really even close put a bit of a black mark to what was the Vols’ first consensus national championship season ever. But this is still one of the greatest teams of all time, and they ran through the SEC in pretty dominant fashion.