The Sports world saw quite a change as well in 1955. Next year finally arrived, when the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated their hated rival New York Yankees four games to three in the World Series. It was Brooklyn's only crown, and the Dodgers would crush the hearts of those in the borough less than three years later when they migrated west to Los Angeles.
The sports scene in Nashville was not without major change. For the first time ever Vanderbilt had received a football bowl invitation. The 1955 team started slowly with a narrow loss to Georgia 14-13. A week later, the Commodores defeated hapless Alabama 21-6, and then followed that up with a convincing loss to up and coming power Ole Miss 13-0.
At 1-2, the Commodores nearly repeated the antics of the great 1948 team. Vandy reeled off six consecutive victories over Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Tulane, and Florida by a combined score of 167-20. At 7-2 prior to the regular season finale against arch-rival Tennessee, word circulated around the music city that a win in Knoxville would secure the Gold men a Cotton Bowl bid to face Southwest Conference champion TCU.
Vandy dominated the game for almost three quarters until quarterback Don Orr sustained a dislocated right (throwing) elbow and was forced to the sideline. The injury looked to be season ending at the time. The Vols rallied late to win 20-14 and spoil Vandy's shot for a big New Year's Day bowl game. Luckily, the Gator Bowl decided to invite two SEC teams. Auburn had already been invited for the third year in a row, and the Gator Bowl Committee decided that a 7-3 Vanderbilt team was an excellent choice. Commodore Coach Art Guepe accepted the invitation for the December 31 game in Jacksonville.
Coach Guepe had assumed command of the Commodores following the resignation of Bill Edwards in 1952. He brought with him from Virginia the Split-T offense, the forerunner of the wishbone. As a result, the 1955 team excelled offensively with a quick-hitting running game. Vandy averaged 232.3 yards rushing with an average of 4.6 yards per rush. Fullback Phil King and all-American halfback Charlie Horton both topped 600 yards rushing, with King averaging 6.4 yards per carry and Horton picking up 5.5 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns.
As the name implies, the split-t earned its keep by spreading the offensive line gaps out to as much as three feet. Hopefully, the defense would spread out as well, allowing the offense to isolate defenders. If the defense didn't widen and stayed in the gaps, it presented the blockers with excellent blocking angles. The telltale fingerprint of the split-t was a quarterback who stayed at the line of scrimmage and did not retreat on running plays. All handoffs were made at the line of scrimmage, and backs exploded off the ball. Seldom did running plays lose yardage. The option play (regular or double option) became popular out of this offense.
The Split-T was not much of a passing offense. The pass was used as a surprise weapon for long gains and as a way to keep defenses honest. Oklahoma and Maryland had already won national titles with this offense, setting numerous rushing records.
Quarterback Orr attempted only 80 aerials for the season, completing just 30 for 486 yards and two scores. Orr's strong points were his faking and option running abilities. Many defenders found themselves tackling the wrong player after one of Orr's magical sleights-of-hand.
For one of the few times in modern day history, Vanderbilt was deep with skilled players. The backups in the trenches developed into quality players as the season progressed. The Commodores had perhaps the best pair of starting guards in the league in seniors Larry Frank and Larry Hays. Jim Cunningham and Barry Heywood split time at center. Tommy Woodruff and Art Demmas started at tackle, while Tommy Harkins and Joe Stephenson anchored the line at end.
Defensively, this Commodore unit was one of the best ever in Nashville. They surrendered just 73 regular season points and allowed a mere 199.8 total yards per game. Except for Tennessee, no opponent topped 14 points. The first team defensive line and linebackers surrendered just 18 points all season, and two of the three touchdowns they gave up occurred when 15-yard penalties moved the ball deep into Commodore territory.
Auburn was clearly one of the top 10 teams in the nation in 1955. The Tigers finished the regular season with a record of 8-1-1. They had the most wide-open, balanced offense in the league and the toughest defense. Tiger coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan had turned around a moribund program and guided the War Eagles to the Gator Bowl for the third consecutive season. The Tigers were led by all-American halfback and SEC MVP Fob James, who had broken off five runs of 60 yards or more during the regular season; for the year, he averaged 7.2 yards per carry, while leading the conference with 879 yards rushing. James was a true leader of this team; these leadership skills would eventually see him become Governor of the State of Alabama two separate times, once as a Democrat and once as a Republican. Joining James in the backfield were all-SEC halfback Bobby Hoppe and powerful fullback Joe Childress.
Tackle Frank D'Agostino earned all-American honors as well. He opened holes for the two speedy runners. Jerry Elliott and Jimmy Phillips gave the Tigers the finest pair of ends in the conference and one of the best of all time during the days of two-way players. This duo combined excellent pass catching offensive skills with brutal tackling on defense. Passing Elliott and Phillips the ball was capable quarterback Howell Tubbs. He came into the Gator Bowl completing 57.1% of his passes.
As the Commodores began bowl practices, it wasn't sure whether Orr would be available for the game. As a result, Coach Guepe moved starting end Harkins to starting quarterback. Harkins had played quarterback in high school but had never taken even one snap in college. Should Orr not be able to go or play only sparingly, Harkins would be making his first collegiate start at QB in the Gator Bowl. As it turned out, Orr would recover quickly and start the game.
The Commodores chartered a Pan Am flight to Jacksonville on December 27 and stayed at the Mayflower Hotel, one mile from the stadium. They were joined by over 4,000 Nashvillians and a few thousand additional Vanderbilt fans from other areas, selling out their allotment of tickets. The Gator Bowl seated 36,000 in 1955, with the stadium having only one level of seats on all four sides.
While most Nashvillians drove down US Highway 41 through Chattanooga and Atlanta, then followed US 19, US 23, and US 1 to Jacksonville (no interstates in 1955), several hundred took the short route through Alabama by driving south on US 41-A, US 231, US 280, US 82 and US1. This route avoided Atlanta and more importantly went through Auburn. The long line of Tennessee cars showed the opponents' fans that they would not have the stadium all to themselves.
As game day approached, Auburn was a solid seven-point pick by the football experts. A few Southern sportswriters and the famous Dr. Ed Litkenhous (who along with Dick Dunkel pioneered what today is known as computer rankings) thought the odds makers were missing the beat. Litkenhous's ratings called for the Commodores to win. A look at comparative scores showed that Auburn had beaten Chattanooga 15-6, Florida 13-0, Georgia 16-13, and Alabama 25-0. The Tigers lost to Tulane 27-13 and tied Kentucky 14-14. Vandy beat Chattanooga 12-0, Alabama 21-6, Kentucky 34-0, Tulane 20-7, and Florida 21-6, while losing to Georgia 14-13. The linear math said that the Commodores were clearly better on a neutral field.
Tomorrow- Part II, the game!