Tennessee football: Despite high ranking, Vols’ 1939 defense underrated

Assorted notes and sketched plays by Robert Neyland are part of an exhibit named "Lighting the Way" currently on display at Hodges Library on campus on Monday, August 26, 2019.Kns Utyear1 0930 Bp Jpg
Assorted notes and sketched plays by Robert Neyland are part of an exhibit named "Lighting the Way" currently on display at Hodges Library on campus on Monday, August 26, 2019.Kns Utyear1 0930 Bp Jpg /

It’s been par for the course for the 1939 Tennessee football team to be disrespected. That is one of Robert Neyland’s undefeated regular season teams to not be recognized as national champions by any service despite 1938 and 1940 earning that recognition.

Meanwhile, it’s always left off the list of greatest teams of all time. However, ignoring a team that went the entire regular season undefeated, untied and, here’s the real kicker, unscored on, is ridiculous. The 1939 Vols are the last team in history to shut out every regular season opponent.

Well, Bill Connelly of ESPN at least gives Tennessee football’s defense some of that respect. He ranks that unit No. 6 all time and the highest of any defense before 1959. In one respect, that’s a huge compliment. Here’s a bit of what Connelly wrote about that team.

"No. 8 Alabama lost 21-0. No. 18 LSU lost 20-0. Two other solid, late-season opponents (Kentucky and Auburn) lost by a combined 26-0. Through 10 regular-season games, Neyland’s best Tennessee defense didn’t allow a single point. All of his seven pillars — the team with the fewest mistakes wins, play for and make the breaks (and when one comes your way, score), carry the fight to your opponent for 60 minutes and so on — were on perfect display, and All-Americans Ed Molinski, George Cafego and Bob Suffridge made sure the effort was matched with raw talent."

Despite that respect, this unit was still underrated. It has to be mentioned again. They didn’t allow a point the entire regular season! Neyland, ever the defensive genius, exceeded his own standard by doing that. Even adjusting for modernity, you have to have this group higher.

Connelly did mention the Rose Bowl game in which the Vols lost 14-0 to the USC Trojans, giving up a touchdown at the end of both halves. That’s something held against the 1939 team. However, that game shouldn’t be held against this team for a couple of reasons.

For starters, the best player on the team, George Cafego, was hurt and couldn’t go. He was not only the star tailback, but he was a major asset at safety, so the defense wasn’t at full strength. Still, a loss is a loss, so you could hold that against them by itself.

What adds to it, though, is everybody seems to forget the nature of bowls back then. It was just the second bowl game in history for the Vols and their first Rose Bowl. Although that was the most prestigious bowl even back then, bowls were nothing more than exhibitions.

Not until after TV became a factor did bowls seem to matter more, and national championships weren’t awarded after bowls until the 1970s. Given those two facts, you should really just ignore what happened in the bowl game.

If you do that, then the Vols defense should actually be higher. For starters, one of the teams ahead of them, the 1959 LSU Tigers, lost two games, including to UT. They also lost 21-0 to the Ole Miss Rebels in the Sugar Bowl, and if you’re going to factor in bowl games, you can’t ignore how that played out.

Now, that Ole Miss team from 1959 is also on there, but they actually have a case, as the team was more recent, shut out eight of 11 opponents and allowed just 21 points all year, never more than a touchdown a game. LSU from that year, though, doesn’t belong.

Before either of those teams, though, directly ahead of the Vols are the 1965 Michigan State Spartans. They allowed three teams to score double digits on them, so it’s really hard to make the case that they should be over the 1939 Vols either.

Although you could place multiple Alabama Crimson Tide teams coached by Nick Saban above that Vols team, this post had the 2016 and 2017 Tide above them. Adjusting for modernity, the 2017 team makes sense. However, unless you put one of Saban’s pre-College Football Playoff teams, no other team should be ahead of the Vols.

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The 2016 team gave up 30 or more points three times, including 43 to Ole Miss. There’s no way you could put that team over Tennessee football’s 1939 team. As a result, based on the teams ahead of the 1939 Vols, they should very clearly be No. 4 at worst and probably No. 3.