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Big Orange Flux Capacitor: Tennessee v. Vanderbilt, 1951 style

So it’s the middle of May and the cold, dark, barren wasteland we call the offseason. Believe me, if I could offer you brand new football, I would. But wasteland and such. What I can offer you is a football game that, although not exactly new, is probably something you haven't seen before: the Tennessee/Vanderbilt game from 1951.

Here’s what you know: Tennessee won this game. You know it because Tennessee’s only other consensus national championship (besides 1998) came in 1951. UT went undefeated during the regular season that year, including beating the only two ranked teams they played that season, Duke and Kentucky. And yes, we're still talking about football. They lost the Sugar Bowl to Maryland, but in those days the final poll was taken before the bowls (you probably knew that fact too, but FWIW, Maryland probably would have been the MNC had the poll been taken afterward, they were #3 when they beat the #1 Vols).

What you might not know is how close the Vols came to blowing it in the final game of the season. And I mean blowing it all -- the championship, the perfect season, and a fourth-quarter lead -- at the hands of Vanderbilt, of all teams.

Thanks to Google Video, here’s part one of Tennessee-Vandy 1951, with some notes and highlights below in case you don’t want to watch the whole thing (it runs about 16 mins).

Strategery-type things to notice: Vandy throws the ball what seems like a lot for 1951. Tennessee throws once. I’ll expound on that when we get to part 2. Also, Vandy runs their offense out of a straight T formation, though later they’ll go into more variations of it and actually go with two wide-outs. Spread offense circa 1951. Tennessee gets a good pass rush almost every play, which makes me wonder when screens and draws were invented because Vandy could exploit them easily.

Tennessee stays in the single-wing the whole game. It’s an interesting offense to watch with lots of misdirection. I suppose it went out of style because it clumps the backs and receivers in close to the ball, allowing the defense to stack the box. It might be easier to key on than other offenses, too, though I’d doubt that due to the misdirection. Anyway, Neyland was one of the last college coaches to give up the single wing (when Neyland’s stubborn, he’s a legend; when Fulmer’s stubborn, people want to fire him -- go figure), although it still has a cult following among youth and high school coaches.

[I’ll save you some time and link the Wikipedia article on the single-wing; here’s another short article on it, too]

One other thing: running the single-wing is #27, Hank Lauricella, the 1951 Heisman Trophy runner-up. Lauricella thus began the tradition of great Vols who lost the Heisman to overrated players.

Points of interest from the film:

At the 1:58 mark of the video, the Sheilds-Watkins Field scoreboard shows Tennessee up 7-0 at the end of the first quarter, most of which is apparently cut from this film.

4:30 - Tennessee touchdown drive

7:15 – Odd sequence with a sack and fumble, apparently blown dead, then a punt, I guess, that we never see. Then, Tennessee’s first ensuing play is a fake punt. If anyone can figure out what’s happening there, let me know. My guess is that some footage was lost, or some plays weren’t filmed.

8:40 – The end around didn’t work in 1951, either.

9:37 – Halftime, the student section does one of those great old-timey hold-up-the-cards-that-spell-something-out-then-flip-them-over-to-spell-something-different things. In this case it says "UT" on one side and "Bowl Bound" on the other. This is back before everybody went to a bowl. Also at halftime, what appears to be the Senior Day ceremony.

10:40 – Tennessee blocks a Vandy punt and runs in for a touchdown. Guess that’s what Neyland meant by "Press the kicking game."

11:35 and 12:30 – Vandy starts running those screens and draws I mentioned earlier. And it works.

13:40 – Touchdown Vanderbilt. Show your gold.

14:15 – Tennessee fumbles, recovered by Vanderbilt.

15:18 – Touchdown Vandy. Uh-oh.

And that’s where part one of Tennessee-Vanderbilt 1951 ends, with the Vols up 21-14, but Vandy mounting a charge. Keep an eye out early next week for part two of UT/VU '51 and my best impersonation of Paul Harvey with the rest of the story.

Go Vols!