Bowden Wyatt: 10-1 (6-0)
SEC Champions; Sugar Bowl appearance; No. 2 AP and Coaches Polls
It was a tough call between the 1956 Tennessee football team and the 1950 Tennessee football team for the top team on this list. Both were coming off three straight years of now bowl appearances, and both finished with one loss and in the top 5.
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In the grand scheme of things, the 1950 season was better because it technically is a national championship season. But the 1956 team was more significant in terms of what was important to the Vols at the time, so it belongs at No. 1.
Heading into the year, UT was four years removed from Robert Neyland’s final season. Neyland had fired Harvey Robinson after just two seasons, a longtime assistant of his and UT grad, due to him going 6-4 and then 4-6. He then brought in another UT legend, Bowden Wyatt, who had championship success with the Wyoming Cowboys Arkansas Razorbacks as a coach.
As we mentioned with the 1955 team, Wyatt had a solid turnaround to get to 6-3-1. This year, behind Buddy Cruze, Bill Johnson, and Johnny Majors, though, he was set to have a historic season on Rocky Top.
The Vols went 10-0 in the regular season. They blew out nine of those 10 teams, including the Ole Miss Rebels, who were ranked No. 19 when the two met, and the Duke Blue Devils, Auburn Tigers and Kentucky Wildcats, who all finished with winning records.
But the highlight of the season came when they had gotten to 6-0 and were set to face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in a Nov. 10 showdown. UT was No. 3, GT was No. 2, and the winner of this game would certainly win the SEC. On the road, the Vols scored a huge 6-0 upset to get to 7-0 on the season.
They got to No. 1, and wins over Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt came easy after that. However, despite their 10-0 record, they finished No. 2 overall, and not one service declared them national champs. Meanwhile, Majors finished second in the Heisman to Paul Hornung, which was highway robbery since Hornung was the quarterback of the 2-8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
In the Sugar Bowl, the Vols lost a 13-7 heartbreaker to the Baylor Bears. Not winning a national title and losing their bowl game would seem to put the 1950 team ahead of this one. But at the time, bowls were exhibitions, and the regular season mattered more. Since UT went undefeated in the regular season and won the SEC, which the 1950 team failed to do, this one takes precedence.
This was a bright spot in what was an otherwise downward spiral for Tennessee football in the post-Neyland years. It is easily the greatest in school history coming off consecutive missed bowl games dating back to when UT began bowl play in 1938.