The date: January 2, 1939
The matchup: No. 4 Tennessee (10-0) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma (10-0)
The stakes: Nothing less than a claim to the mythical national title. The 1938 season produced a glut of undefeateds, but ... this was the pre-playoff era! Any claim to a title was a good one, and finishing unbeaten is more than good enough.
The back story: Bob Neyland’s name is on one of the biggest stadiums in college football, but the former Tennessee head coach might still have been underrated. The former brigadier general took over in Knoxville in 1926 and proceeded to begin his career 61-2-5. After a couple of "down" years around the time of the SEC's formation (he 'only' went 15-5 in 1933-34), he took a year off to fulfill a military obligation, then returned and went 12-5-3 in 1936-37.
In 1938 began the second golden age of Neyland's Vols. From 1938-40, UT would go 31-2, outscoring opponents by a combined 837-75. That's right: 33 games, 75 points. Neyland had his maxims and defensive principles, and he was one of the first coaches to use film to break down upcoming opponents. His defenses weren’t incredibly innovative, but they were impossibly sound and knew everything you were going to do.
In 1939, the Vols would pitch a regular season shutout, outscoring foes 212-0 until a 14-0 Rose Bowl loss. But the 1938 team had a little bit more offensive punch and nearly as much defensive dominance. They allowed 10 points in the first two weeks, then gave up just six the rest of the way.
The Vols were meeting an almost equally dominant team in the 1939 Orange Bowl. Oklahoma had outscored opponents 185-12, manhandling good Iowa State and Missouri teams and really manhandling everybody else. Tom Stidham had needed only two years to get the Sooners rolling. He would end up leaving for Marquette in 1941, but he was in the process of building an excellent program in Norman.
The game: From 50 Best*:
The Orange Bowl was the first bowl appearance for either of these eventually storied programs, and it showed. In the gorgeous new Orange Bowl stadium, both the Sooners and Volunteers were on edge, flagged for quite a few roughness penalties. Nevertheless, before the ebb of roughness reached its height in the third quarter, Tennessee had already secured a 10-0 lead. A short punt and a great Cafego return set up an early Foxx touchdown, and Bob Andridge recovered a fumble inside the OU 30, which set up a Wyatt field goal.
By the fourth quarter, the Sooners were toast. Fittingly, outgoing senior Walter Wood raced 19 yards to paydirt for the final score of the season, and the Vols won, 17-0.
Tennessee was simply too much, outgaining OU by a 260-94 margin and never allowing for a sliver of second-half hope.
Tennessee would finish second in the AP poll behind TCU but, via the College Football Researchers Association poll and others, would still claim a share of the mythical national title. It certainly doesn’t take much affirmation for programs to claim titles from long-ago decades, but the Vols deserved a ring for the job they did. They maneuvered through a tricky schedule, handing Clemson, Alabama, and Oklahoma each their only respective losses of the season. With Cafego mastering his craft, they showed as much offensive upside as just about any Neyland squad would, and … oh, that defense. It was always good, but in 1938, it began a run of true greatness.
The box score:
Oklahoma went 10-for-27 passing for 69 yards, while Tennessee completed just four of 13 passes. The difference, of course: only one team could run the ball. And was always the case under Neyland, that team was Tennessee.
Neyland would return after the war and peak one more time, going 21-2 in 1950-51 and winning the 1951 AP title. This was a ridiculously sound team, and in the biggest game in program history, the Vols held their nerve (and held the line) better than the overwhelmed Sooners.