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Rearview Mirror: To Claim or Not to Claim

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That is the question!

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The 1952 Sugar Bowl Champion Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7517)

It was dumb to count out Bobby Dodd before he built a juggernaut, and it was still dumb afterwards. Though the years before, honestly, were more a mixed bag than anything, it’s still not like the season before had yielded hints that anything would be terribly different in 1951. But, as Tech is wont to do, something, it seems, clicked over the winter.


It seems forever ago that I last talked about the Georgia Tech football team. Though much has happened in the real world since then, we still pick up with Bobby Dodd and his boys at the tail end of the 1950 season. The Yellow Jackets had just gone 5-6-0 with no real trend indicating upwards or downwards momentum. Bobby Dodd’s bowl wins had been nice previously, but the team was just kind of average.

Tech came into the 1951 season unranked, but with a moderate amount of returning talent, and, as always, a talented head coach. Captain Lamar Wheat, a right tackle, later an All-American right tackle, as well as Ray Beck, a guard, led the returners, while George Morris and Buck Martin were relatively unheard of juniors. For now. The Jackets were led by the latest sensational quarterback out of Kingsport, Tennessee, complementing their head coach, who had been the first in a long line of them. Pepper Rodgers was just a sophomore buried on the depth chart back then. Tech ran their offense out of the standard T formation, with two halfbacks, a fullback, and a quarterback in the backfield, and seven men on the line.

The Jackets began the season at home, hosting Southern Methodist, and holding the guests to just 7 points in a two touchdown victory in front of a decently large crowd of 33,000. They were unranked. The next week, they took their show on the road to the swamp and routed their hosts, the Florida Gators, in Gainesville 27-0. This, however, wasn’t terribly unusual in those days, as Florida was often closer to bad than mediocre. The Jackets, 2-0, stayed on the road to continue Southeastern Conference play in Lexington, Kentucky. Having rocketed up to no. 11 in the first AP poll, they defeated the no. 17 Wildcats in a 13-7 nailbiter. The trip in and of itself was something of an oddity, as conference schedules were nowhere near regulated. While Tech regularly played the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Tulane, and the school out east, with Tennessee and Vanderbilt making regular appearances, Florida, LSU, and Kentucky were rarely seen in Atlanta and vice versa. Ole Miss and Mississippi State might have well played on Mars. Even then, while the Jackets, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss played seven conference games in 1951, Kentucky, Florida, Tulane, and the Athenians played six, Tennessee played five, and Vanderbilt and Alabama played eight, for some reason. There wasn’t really any order, it seems.

Nevertheless, Tech continued to romp through its schedule. Tech slid up to no. 8 the next week, in time to defeat LSU 25-7 back on the Flats. Auburn was next, and with Tech having been ratcheted up three more spots to no. 5, the rivalry game could have been overwhelming for the Jackets. Only it wasn’t. The home team took the game by their biggest margin since week two, 27-7, and found themselves sitting in third nationally in time for a trip to Nashville. However, up in the music city, the Commodores almost shocked the country, but Tech was able to hang on to a narrow one point margin through a dicey last few minutes of the game. For their efforts, Tech received the rivalry cowbell and a demotion two spots down in the rankings.

Sidenote: remember a couple years ago when they just found that cowbell, even though everyone had forgotten about it? Crazy times.

For some reason, for roughly a half century before Tech joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, they played an annual game against Duke. This series has been more constant than Clemson, and threatens to eclipse Auburn for total number of contested games between the two teams. Yet, despite this, it’s not really a rivalry. Sure, Duke can be hated, or despised, but mention the Blue Devils and there won’t be nearly the same emotional rise as talking about either the Tigers on the plains or the Tigers with a lake. Of course, Tech only tied the Blue Devils at home 14-14 on the Flats, their only blemish thus far, on homecoming day in front of 36,000 fans.

Tech, back at the familiar no. 8 ranking, kicked in the Virginia Military Institute’s teeth the next week in front of roughly half the fans, but their opponents scored half the number of points, while Tech more than doubled their own margin. Inching back up to no. 7, the Jackets then hit the road for what was technically their last true road game on the season. They played an unranked Alabama team at Legion Field in Birmingham, as the Crimson Tide often did for important games back then. A 20-point margin of victory in hand, Tech returned to Atlanta for their final out-of-conference matchup, this time against Davidson. Just like VMI, they won 34-7.

Easily Tech’s most dominating win of the year was their final one. In front of 40,000 in Midtown Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets hosted the school in Athens. 48 points later, as opposed to just 6 from the visitors, the Jackets locked down an undefeated season and a no. 5 ranking in the final poll of the year. Tech would tie Tennessee for the SEC crown, though the Jackets played two more conference contests over the course of the season. The Volunteers would finish the regular season ranked first in the country, after a 10-0 regular season, and head to the Sugar Bowl. However, they would go on to lose to Maryland in that game. Meanwhile, the Jackets were sent once more to South Beach to play in the Orange Bowl against the no. 13 Virginia Cavaliers. Though it would have been the Hoos first-ever bowl game, they declined, with their university president stressing their commitment to academics, rather than football. Instead, facing no. 9 Baylor, Tech edged the Bears 17-14 in front of a monumental crowd of almost 70,000 in sunny South Florida. This would mark Dodd’s third appearance, and second win in a row, and Tech’s third win overall in the Orange Bowl.

Since in those days, the AP Poll was not re-released after bowl games, Tennessee ended the season ranked number one in the country. Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan State, and Illinois all claim titles from that year. Tech, who finished fifth, received eight first place votes in the poll, and was awarded the title by two NCAA-recognized selectors. Even though Illinois finished with an identical record, and Tennessee a worse one, Tech does not claim the 1951 national championship, despite having a pretty solid case to do so. However, the optics of going back to snag a fifth title probably aren’t great. Thus, 1951 joins the annals of 1917 in the halls of “could-have-been” championships, and probably 1916, too, had the sport paid any attention to the South before a certain beatdown that happened against Cumberland. But, nevertheless, the undefeated Jackets would have their rightful asterisk-free rings, too. It would just have to wait another year.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.


If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.