No matter what ranking you go by, Tennessee football is playing in the highest combined ranked regular season game in school history Saturday when it visits the Georgia Bulldogs. Adding the numbers by the teams in any poll never goes above four total.
The previous high set during the regular season has many parallels to this one, though. It was a game featuring two undefeated teams in which the Vols visited a school in Georgia in November with a Heisman Trophy candidate. They were also facing a national championship coach and in the second year of their head coach.
In 1956, Tennessee football visited the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Saturday, Nov. 10. UT was in its second year under head coach Bowden Wyatt, who was an All-American for the Vols in the 1930s and they had high-profile back and Vols legend Johnny Majors leading them.
Georgia Tech was led by another former Vol Bobby Dodd. They were 6-0 and had secured wins over the No. 5 ranked SMU Mustangs and No. 15 ranked Tulane Green Wave. In those days, Georgia Tech was an SEC School. Although UT was also 6-0, they hadn’t yet beaten a ranked team.
As a result, the Vols came into this game ranked No. 3, and Georgia Tech was ranked No. 2. GT was on the heels of five straight top 15 finishes and four in the top 10, including a No. 7 ranking the previous year. They shared the SEC Championship with the Vols in 1951 and won the national championship in 1952.
Meanwhile, after that 1951 title, Robert Neyland retired early due to health a year later. UT went .500 in two years under Harvey Robinson, including a 4-6 campaign in 1954, before bringing in Wyat in 1955. Does any of this sound familiar to what Josh Heupel is doing now?
Oh, and Wyatt was a national champion and All-American player. Anyway, given everything that was going on, the Vols were clearly the underdogs despite the rankings in this 3-2 matchup. However, they scored one of the most legendary wins in program history that day.
That matchup was a defensive struggle. Midway through the third quarter, there was no score. However, Majors then hit end Buddy Cruze on a huge pass play that went down to the one-yard line and set up the Vols’ only score to go up 6-0.
An old Sports Illustrated article from 1956 actually broke down the play. GT had been doubling Cruze all day, but after a two-yard run by Tommy Bronson, they loosened up coverage. Majors hit Cruze for one short pass play to set up the big one.
It was the only score the Vols needed, as they ended up winning 6-0. Given two Neyland proteges going at it in that one, low scoring was to be expected. The Vols reached No. 1 the next week and won out in the regular season, capturing the SEC Championship with a 10-0 record.
However, the final month of the year was a depressing one. Majors lost the Heisman to Paul Hornung, who went 2-8 with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Oklahoma Sooners were declared national champions over the Vols. Then UT lost to the Baylor Bears in the Sugar Bowl.
None of that changes what happened in that game, though. Georgia Tech finished 10-1, with that being their only loss, so Tennessee football winning the SEC title on the backs of that game was legendary. It shouldn’t be forgotten either.
UT has played in higher or as high combined ranked games, but they were all bowls. The highest was Jan. 4, 1999, when they were No. 1 and beat the No. 2 Florida State Seminoles in the Fiesta Bowl to win the 1998 national championship. That’s obviously the most legendary matchup.
Way back in 1939, UT was No. 2 and lost to the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl on New Years Day in 1940. After capturing the national title in 1951, UT lost to the Maryland Terrapins in the Sugar Bowl on New Years Day in 1952. The 1967 SEC Champion Vols lost to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl on New Years Day 1968.
All of this actually shows two things, though. Tennessee football has never played in a game like the magnitude of Saturday at Georgia in which they didn’t win the SEC. Also, as the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff, they have never had a season where they hit No. 1 and didn’t win the SEC. As a result, these are great signs.