The Jackets may have gotten their national championship after all, and return a lot of the talent that got them there, but something didn’t quite click in 1953 like it did in 1952.
It’s often tossed about that you have to be lucky and good to win a national championship. On its face that seems both obviously and wrong. Sure, skill can only provide so much of an advantage, you have to win the games. Whether that comes down any of a myriad of potential hazards - weather, officiating, what the kicker eats for breakfast - it requires a little bit of faith and luck to have the little uncontrollable things fall into place. But, when you look at the converse, you can also say the same thing: win the games. If you’re talented enough, or well-coached enough, that’s all it takes. It seems cognitively dissonant for both to be true. But thus is the story of the 1953 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
The Jackets rolled into the year having not lost since 1950, and that remained true in week one against Davidson. Tech, ranked no. 3 in the country, often squared off against the Wildcats back in those days. They showed no sign of letting up on the small team from North Carolina, pounding them 53-0 at Grant Field. This, of course, was more expected than anything for the defending champions.
The next weekend, the Jackets headed out to Gainesville for a showdown of a conference opener against the Florida Gators. The home team, ranked no. 15 in the country, was coached by former Tech assistant Bob Woodruff. Of course, Woodruff would go on to greater success back at his alma mater of Tennessee, where he served as athletic director for more than two decades, seeing national titles in three sports, and perennial postseason success in football and basketball. He served just a year as a Tech assistant coach, though, on one of Bobby Dodd’s first Tech teams. The pupil must have picked something up from the Tall Gray Fox, though, as he and Florida dueled Dodd and Tech to a scoreless tie in the Swamp. In hindsight, that was a poor game for the Jackets, as the Gators would go on to beat just three teams - Stetson, The Citadel, and the school in Athens - but tie two of the three ranked teams they played. Football is a strange sport, sometimes.
Tech returned home to play SMU the following weekend after falling six places in the Coaches Poll. The narrow 6-4 win was even less convincing than the previous tie to the pollsters, and the Jackets’ stock fell a spot further heading into a road game in the mammoth Tulane Stadium. However, Tech was able to turn it around against the Green Wave, who would finish winless in conference play, pulling out a 27-13 win.
The first decent Auburn team in years was up next, as the no. 19 Tigers rolled into Atlanta having not yet lost a game. Of course, as Tech was oft fond of doing in those days, it pummeled the rival school clear across the Chattahoochee, 36-6, in front of a near sellout crowd.
I do not understand Georgia Tech’s insistence on scheduling Notre Dame. I get that the ACC forces it now, but, for years, Tech would play games against the Fighting Irish, and would rarely get them to pay a visit to Atlanta. Tech’s record in South Bend is abysmal. It is unsurprising, then, that when the no. 4 Yellow Jackets ventured up to Notre Dame Stadium, the no. 1 Fighting Irish promptly escorted them out, taking the game by two scores, 27-14. While it is certainly nice to play quality opponents, the general lack of return trips in the series, combined with Tech’s consistently sketchy showings in Indiana, make the decisions made over several decades rather questionable in hindsight.
Something must’ve frightened the Commodores in Nashville, though, the next week, as Tech was able to steamroll Vanderbilt on Halloween night 43-0, before returning home to host Clemson for homecoming. The no. 6 Yellow Jackets had a strong showing against the unranked Tigers, winning 30-7, in front of a healthy crowd in early November. Of course, this is all leading up to the game that would be Tech’s undoing.
Having already lost once this season, another would certainly doom the Jackets’ chances to sniff a contested title in 1953. Of course, the weekend after homecoming would send Tech to Birmingham to face the Alabama Crimson Tide at Legion Field. Tech played both Auburn and Alabama at Legion Field, but it seemed that the Alabama home field magic was a little stronger than War Eagle. The underdog Crimson Tide was able to pry a second touchdown form Tech’s ordinarily lock-down defense in the second half, and unranked Alabama was able to sink a top-5 Tech team. This win catapulted the Crimson Tide to the top of the Southeastern Conference standings, a position they would hold through the end of the season, and thoroughly removed Georgia Tech from title contention.
No. 15 Duke visited no. 12 Tech the next weekend. The Jackets, at their lowest rank in several seasons, narrowly avoided being upset a the second straight week, winning 13-10 in front of 40,000 fans. They scrounged up 1,000 more people the next week for the annual tilt against the school in Athens, as Tech handed a 3-7 team its 8th loss, their fifth in a row in the season, and fifth in a row to Tech. The Yellow Jackets scored 28 points to the Athenians’ 12.
Tech, thanks to its late season streak, was able to rebound enough to secure an invitation to the 1954 Sugar Bowl against West Virginia. There, the no. 8 Yellow Jackets faced the no. 10 Mountaineers in Tech’s second game of the year in Tulane Stadium. The cavernous stadium was more than twice as full, at 70,500, and people were able to tune into the Jackets’ first televised game of the season on ABC, as Tech ran roughshod all over the Mountaineers. The 42-19 final score was more than proof of the actual potential of this team, regardless of the tie against mediocre Florida, and loss to a lesser Alabama team. A championship season requires a little luck. Sometimes, talent doesn’t win out in the end.
Ultimately, though, Georgia Tech may not have won the no. 1 spot in the country, but they did win a very highly-regarded bowl game in a solid follow-up to the previous year’s success. And though there may not be a trophy around to prove it, Dodd was able to notch another prestigious win into his belt, in one of the most historic bowls, to list right after his previous national championship. And that, I’d say, is a pretty good 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.