Football: Greatest Vanderbilt seasons since 1940

Frequently, we try to rate which of our great basketball teams from the past were the best (1965 hands down). I have yet to see much discussion about the best 10 football teams. I consider 1940 to be the beginning of the age of modern football (The T-formation and the forward pass began to come into vogue).

From 1940 to 2004, here are what I believe are the best 10 Vandy football teams. It is probably obvious to all that last year's 2-9 team would blow any team from the 1940's off the field, but this rating compares the teams by factoring out the evolution of size and speed across the decades.

10. 1968 5-4-1. Coach Bill Pace (right) brought excitement to Vandy in 1967 and then produced a winner a year later. The Commodores lost two games by three points or less, and tied Florida in a major surprise. These three games could have been wins and produced an 8-2 record. The 270 yards allowed per game and 14.7 points allowed per game by the defense have not been matched since (even Woody Widenhofer's great defenses in the 1990's surrendered more yards). The signature win came at West Point against a good Army team. The Cadets couldn't stop our passing game all day long.

9. 1957 5-3-2. This team beat the teams it should have and lost to the teams it should have. The split-T offense still had a little dyanmite, especially in the running game, but the defense couldn't stop the potent ground games of the better teams. The highlight win came against Penn State at Happy Valley.

8. 1959 5-3-2. A rough start saw Vandy lose to Orange Bowl Champ Georgia (Fran Tarkenton at QB), which finished 10-1, tie Bear Bryant's first really good Alabama team (The Tide would lose only one regular season game), and lose to Ole Miss (they would go 10-1), whom many football experts believed to be the best team in the nation after the Rebels clobbered LSU 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl. Coach Art Guepe's last good team then upset a 3-0-1 Florida team to begin the turnaround. The season closed with a sweet 14-0 win over Tennessee in Knoxville. This closed out yet another decade where Vandy posted a winning overall record for the 10-year period.

7. 1950 7-4-0. Quarteback Bill Wade (right) made national headlines with his long passes to all-American end Bucky Curtis. The Commodores upset Alabama en route to a 4-0 start. Florida pulled off an upset victory over Vandy 31-27, and then the Commodores beat both Arkansas and Chattanooga on the road to move to 6-1. The team wore out and struggled to a 1-3 finish.

6. 1982 8-4-0. The last team to post a winning season wearing the black and gold. Coach George MacIntyre hired Watson Brown to run his offense in 1981, and he installed the first wide open passing offense in the SEC since Florida 13 years earlier. This team finished 4-2-0 in SEC play, and both of those losses were by slim margins. An injury to fullback Ernie Goolsby took away the one serious rushing threat. With a healthy Goolsby, this team may have had enough offensive firepower to beat Georgia and take the SEC crown.

5. 1974 7-3-2 Steve Sloan (left) had us believing; remember "We believe in Steve!" The veer offense was ranked number one in the SEC at over 400 total yards per game. The defense gave up about 275 yards per game. This team had a chance to win 11 out of the 12 games on the schedule. Losses to Alabama and Georgia could have gone the other way if one or two additional plays had worked. Only the blowout loss to Kentucky (Vandy's first game on TV in 16 years) was a bad game.

4. 1958 5-2-3. This team was one-dimensional. In the days of limited substitution and players played both offense and defense, Coach Guepe concentrated his efforts on the defensive side. The Commodores were tough to score on (seven points per game) and tough to gain yardage against (<225 yards per game). George Deiderich was a consensus all-American for his play at defensive guard. Only a fourth quarter letdown against Clemson saw any team move the ball on the defense (that Clemson team went on to play LSU in the Sugar Bowl). The 1958 team actually had a small chance to win the SEC title after nine games had been played. At 2-0-3 in conference play, The Commodores needed losses by Auburn to Alabama and LSU to Tulane, while knocking off Tennessee to take the crown. Alas, all three games went the other way. When the Vols upset Vandy, Ole Miss moved into a tie for third with the Commodores.

3. 1955 8-3-0. This was the year of our only bowl win. Coach Guepe had a strong rushing offense with his split-T formation. Quarterback Don Orr was the magician to make it work. All-American back Charlie Horton and future pro Phil King joined Orr in a great backfield. The defense was close to the strength of the 1958 and 1948 units. After nine games, the record stood at 7-2. A win over Tennessee in the final game would send the Commodores to Dallas to play in the Cotton Bowl. The Volunteers, led by triple threat tailback Johnny Majors, pulled off the upset. Vandy instead went to the Gator Bowl and upset favored Auburn.

2. 1941 8-2-0. Coach Henry "Red" Sanders first great team in Nashville, his offensive line coach was a man named Paul "Bear" Bryant. Bryant's coaching acumen produced results; center Bob Gude made All-American. In the eight wins, the Commodores outscored the opposition by an average of 30 to 4. An unexpected loss at home to a slightly above average Tulane team may have cost the Commodores a shot at the Orange, Sugar, or Cotton Bowl. A loss to Tennessee in the season finale sealed their fate. This team shut out Alabama 7-0, and the Tide went on to win the Cotton Bowl.

1. 1948 8-2-1. It is no surprise that the 1948 team rates as the finest modern day outfit in Vandy history. Three and a half games into the season, it looked as though the Commodores would stumble to a losing record. At 0-2-1 and trailing Kentucky at halftime in game four, the team awoke and exploded. The final seven and a half games saw the Commodores blow out everybody left on the schedule ala Nebraska of 1995. Coach Sander's single wing offense could move the ball, especially on the ground. This team was the nation's best punt return team led by Lee Nalley. Stellar defensive play was the key; The Goldmen gave up less than 100 yards per game rushing and less than 100 yards per game passing. In those last seven and a half games, Vandy outscored the opposition 307 to 19. The Orange Bowl wanted to invite the Commodores to take on regular season SEC champ Georgia (Vandy did not play the Bulldogs that year). As SEC champ, Georgia had veto power in the choice of its opposition. Coach Wally Butts' troops wanted no part of Vandy.

Special Notes: The 1975 team went 7-4 and beat Tennessee in Knoxville. However, this may have been the weakest seven-win team in SEC history. This team averaged less than 11 points per game, less than 230 total yards per game, less than 2.8 yards per rush, completed less than 45% of its passes, saw one of every 10 passes intercepted, and surrendered well over 200 yards per game rushing and more than 300 total yards per game. This team lost to Alabama 40-7, Georgia 47-3, Florida 35-0, and Ole Miss 17-7. In the 7 wins (UT-Chattanooga, Rice, Tulane, Virginia, Kentucky, Army, and Tennessee), the average score was 14-9 over a group that cumulatively went 23-53-2. UT-Chattanooga lost to Jacksonville State and Arkansas State by more points than they lost to this Vandy squad. Army lost to Villanova by 10 and to Vandy by nine. I'll bet each and every Commodore fan would take a seven-win season like this in 2005.

After the 1974 team, which offense produced the most yards? It was the 1987 team led by Eric Jones at quarterback. This unit rushed for more than 200 yards per game while passing for just under 200 yards per game. Unfortunately, the defense surrendered more than 400 yards per game, and the squad went 4-7-0.

Which team had the worst offensive production? Hands down, it was the 1966 team that ended the Jack Green era at Dudley Field. This unit averaged only 76 yards rushing and 91 yards passing while scoring only 72 points for the season and going 1-9-0. Remove the stats from the lone win over small college Citadel 24-0, and the average production was about 150 total yards per game, or what Frank Moridca did on two plays against Air Force in 1978.

Which Vandy Defense posted the best numbers? It was the 1946 team which shut out five of the nine teams on the schedule and yielded only 4.8 points per game. The offense only scored 12 points per game, so the final record was just 5-4-0. The highlight of that season was a 7-0 upset over a North Carolina State team that went 8-2 in the regular season and advanced to the Gator Bowl against Oklahoma. The four losses were to teams that went a combined 32-10-1.

Which Vandy defense was the most porous? The 1990 Commodores surrendered 41.5 points per game while going 1-10. Even the five opponents who posted losing records scored 37.6 points per game against this defense. The dagger losses this season were 44-7 to a 1-10 SMU team that failed to win a division I-A game in the two years after the death penalty, and a 56-28 loss at home to a weak last place in the ACC Wake Forest team that lost to next to last place in the ACC Duke by 37 points.

Photos provided by Vanderbilt University.

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