In the SEC, Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide was an offensive scoring machine. Alabama ran the option out of the wishbone, but the abilities of alternating quarterbacks Richard Todd and Gary Rutledge to throw long to All-American end Wayne Wheeler reminded fans more of Daryl Lamonica throwing to Fred Biletnikoff with the Oakland Raiders. Alabama averaged well over ten yards per pass attempt, and still managed to rush for nearly 300 yards a game, led by halfbacks Wilbur Jackson and Randy Billingsley. Only a missed extra point in the Sugar Bowl kept the Tide from going down as one of the five best teams in college football history.
A former Crimson Tide quarterback from Cleveland, Tenn. in 1973 began a two-year venture as Vanderbilt's most successful head coach since Henry "Red" Sanders. Steve Sloan traded jobs with Bill Pace following the 1972 season. Sloan became head coach at Vandy, while Pace took over as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech.
At 28, Sloan became the youngest Division I head coach ever when he took the job. He chose Rex Dockery as his offensive coordinator and Bill Parcells as his defensive coordinator; also on the staff was future Vanderbilt head coach George MacIntyre. Perhaps the sparkplug among the assistants was running backs coach Art Zeleznik, who may have been the best motivator Vandy has seen on the coaching sidelines. His work with the running game would turn Lonnie Sadler and Jamie O'Rourke into dangerous weapons by the time they were seniors.
For the fourth year in a row, Vandy opened with the UT-Chattanooga. After the first meeting in 1970, in which a somewhat healthy Watson Brown tore the Mocs' defense apart, the last three games had gone to the wire. Moc head coach Joe Morrison (a former star in the NFL with the New York Giants) closed practices and installed multiple defenses to throw at the Vanderbilt split veer offense. It worked well, as the Commodores couldn't move the ball. Fortunately, Vandy's 5-2 defense intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble, leading to both touchdowns in a 14-12 win. Nose guard Tom Galbierz and cornerback Tommy Tompkins picked up the decisive turnovers that produced the two scores.
Next came a crushing 52-21 loss at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, led by quarterback Rocky Felker, ran for over 300 yards and held Vandy's veer option offense to under 100 yards. Vandy led 14-7 in the second quarter before the Bulldogs' identical veer offense started clicking for consistent gains on the fullback give.
Week Three brought the Crimson Tide to town. Alabama substituted liberally and destroyed the Commodores 44-0. Bama never punted and did not turn the ball over. The Tide's superior team speed made them seem unstoppable, and they ran and passed the ball with ease. Alabama piled up more than 400 yards rushing and attempted only seven passes, but added another 150-170 yards through the air. Vandy was forced to bring nine players to the line to stop the option, and Alabama burned the secondary for five completed long bombs.
Vandy quickly rebounded with wins over a weak Virginia team on the road and a fairly good William & Mary team at home. Vandy totaled 500 yards of offense against the Cavaliers, led by Jamie O'Rourke's 170-yard rushing effort. The triple and regular options could not be stopped in a 39-22 win. In this game, Coach Dockery sprung his famous tight end around reverse for the first time. While Barry Burton would later make this play famous, it was Jesse Mathers who ran the ball this time, and it went for more than 40 yards and a touchdown.
Vandy dominated William & Mary 20-7 in a pouring rain, as the Commodore defense caught two Indian passes, while the Indians' receivers only caught one on a screen pass that went for negative yardage. Once again, Jamie O'Rourke ran for 100 yards.
At 3-2, Vandy was in the same boat as the 1972 team which proceeded to drop six games in a row and end the Bill Pace era. The next game was homecoming against Georgia. The Bulldogs had tied Johnny Majors' Pitt Panthers, led by freshman tailback Tony Dorsett, and played Alabama close before losing 28-14. Coming off an impressive 20-0 pasting of Ole Miss, Bulldog coach Vince Dooley was confident his team would continue its routine destruction of Vandy as it had the previous five years: 28-3, 24-0, 37-3, 40-8, and 32-6. The odds-makers agreed with Dooley's assessment and made Georgia a 17-point favorite.
Even though it was Homecoming, only about 20,000 tickets were sold. A game between Tennessee State and Florida A&M, to be played as the nightcap to a doubleheader at Dudley Field, had sold several thousand seats more and would sell out the 34,000-seat stadium before kickoff.
The key to keeping the game close was stopping Georgia's one-two running tandem of quarterback Andy Johnson and tailback Jimmy Poulos. Johnson was so adept at running the ball that he would later be drafted by the New England Patriots as a halfback and star in their backfield for several years. Georgia threw the ball in 1973 about as often as Rice throws the ball today. When Johnson rolled out on the perimeter, he kept the ball 95% of the time.
The first half of the game was typical of the previous five contests between the two schools. Both teams played it close to the vest for two possessions. Barry Burton's second punt was returned for long yardage by Georgia inside Vandy territory. Keeping the ball on the ground, The Dawgs drove the distance just before the opening period ended. Johnson dove in for the score and Alan Leavitt added the PAT. Georgia led 7-0 after one quarter.
Neither team could do much offensively for the next 10 minutes. Then, The Commodore offense came to life. Quarterback Fred Fisher guided the Commodores on a long drive, mixing the play-action pass with the several handoffs to Sadler. The drive stalled inside the Bulldog 20, and Hawkins Golden (Vandy's first soccer-style kicker) booted a field goal to cut the Georgia lead to 7-3. With time running out in the opening half, Johnson threw long to an end who had beaten the coverage for Georgia's second touchdown. UGA went to the locker room up 14-3 at the half, looking to have yet another easy win sewn up over the Commodores.
The Bulldogs rushed for over 100 yards in the first half and generated 9 first downs, while Vandy had failed to garner 100 total yards and only 6 first downs. Vandy had now played 14 consecutive quarters against Erk Russell's (a former Commodore assistant) defense without penetrating the goal.
Vandy received the second-half kick and held the ball for just three plays without gaining a yard. With the line of scrimmage at the Vandy 20, Burton came in to punt. His leg met the ball at the exact spot to launch it like a Jack Nicklaus tee shot. The ball turned over and carried several yards over the Bulldog punt return man. It landed on the Astroturf and rolled to the Georgia one-yard line, good for 79 yards!
If ever a punt turned a game around, this one was it. Georgia's vaunted rushing offense was about to shipwreck. The Bulldogs would rush for little more than 10 total yards in the final half and pick up only one first down on a fluke play. Time after time, a Commodore defender would shed a blocker and stop the Bulldogs' running plays. Greg Williams, Tom Galibierz, Joe Reynolds, Mark Ilgenfritz, Mark Llewellyn, Bo Patton, and Mark Adams played as well as any front 7 has ever played for the black and gold. Defensive backs Scott Wingfield and Doug Nettles played like all-Americans supporting the run and cutting off the out routes.
Vandy's offense still couldn't finish the job, but Fisher directed the Commodores on another long drive to the Georgia 30. Golden came in and booted field goal number two from 47 yards to cut it to 14-6. After holding the Bulldogs to three plays and a punt, Fisher spotted Jesse Mathers on the flank for a key first down. Sadler continued to run the ball for good gains on the tailback isolation play with excellent blocking from alternating fullbacks Martin Garcia and Paul Brogdon. Vandy moved to the Georgia 15, and Fisher hit Burton in the end zone as the third quarter clock approached all zeroes. Finally, Vandy had scored six on Georgia. Trailing by a deuce, the Commodores went for two. Fisher faked the dive and attempted to pass for the conversion, but the throw was wide. After three quarters, Georgia clung to a 14-12 lead and knew it was in a dogfight.
Vince Dooley realized his squad could not run the ball against Parcells' defense. The Bulldogs had yet to move the chains in the second half even once.
Dooley instructed Johnson to throw, and he threw a long pass that was caught inside Vandy's 10-yard line. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the man who caught it was Commodore cornerback Doug Nettles, who returned it back to midfield. With the clock running, Vandy converted one first down and then ran three more plays. Enter the Golden foot. Golden converted on his fourth field goal of the day with 1:30 to go, and Vandy led 18-14.
Georgia still had life with a minute to play. Johnson once again threw the bomb, and once again a Vandy defender got to the ball first. Unfortunately, another Commodore defender simultaneously tried to intercept the pass and tipped the ball backwards five yards where an alert Georgia receiver caught it and tried to emulate Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" against the Raiders. Defensive back Steve Curnutte reacted quickly and made a game-saving tackle. It was Georgia's only first down of the second half.
But Georgia would turn the ball over on downs as the clock ticked under 10 seconds, and Vandy had pulled off its biggest upset since Alabama in 1969. Hawkins Golden had tied an SEC record with four field goals and set a Vandy record with seven field goals in one season after only 6 games! He would finish the season 12-of-14 to set the field goal percentage record in a single season. (Oddly, Golden wasn't always a soccer-style kicker. A leg injury the year before forced him to try the sidewinder method. He routinely nailed kicks of over 55 yards in practice and hit one from 55 yards later that season against Tampa, a Vandy record he still shares today.)
The Commodores were 4-2 for the first time in 17 years. The chant, "We Believe in Steve" was heard on campus. Fans began clearing up space on their late December calendars for a bowl trip. They would have to wait a year, but the times they were a changin'. Vandy lost to Ole Miss, Tulane (having its best season in over 20 years), and Kentucky before beating Tampa to even the record at 5-5 heading to Knoxville. The Commodores led the Volunteers late into the fourth quarter when a botched punt attempt gave Tennessee the ball deep in Vandy territory. The Vols scored and won the game.
For Vandy, 1974 would be the breakthrough year. Coach Sloan and his crackerjack staff would guide Vandy to seven wins and a Peach Bowl berth. But the seeds for that team's success were sown on Homecoming Day, 1973. It was a Golden day.