Oklahoma Sooners-Tennessee Vols: A brief, but interesting history


Oklahoma and Tennessee will play for just the third time ever on Saturday in Norman. While the Sooners and Volunteers split the first two meetings and haven’t played since 1968, you only need to look back to that matchup in the 1968 Orange Bowl to find some very interesting history concerning the Sooners, Volunteers, and how national championships were decided.

For a season when college football will be going to a four-team playoff for the first time in history thanks to a complete disdain for the old BCS, it’s very interesting to see just how much better the BCS looks compared to the system used the last time these two teams played.

The first thing that should be pointed out is that Tennessee, much like many of their SEC brethren, like to claim more national championships than they should really be credited with. The Volunteers claim a total of six titles.

In reality they should only take credit for two national championships. 1951 and 1998 are the only two years in which the Volunteers were actually crowned champion by either the AP or the UPI (coach’s poll), the two polls most programs considered to be the legit method of winning national championships during that time.

A quick glance at the other titles claimed by Tennessee will immediately draw the attention of Oklahoma fans. The Volunteers actually stake a claim to the national championship in 1950, the championship Oklahoma claims as their first, and again in 1967.

1967 was the season the Sooners defeated the Vols in the Orange Bowl, 26-24, and finished second in the nation. It was also Chuck Fairbanks’ first season as head coach at Oklahoma. He took over before the season started after coach Jim Mackenzie passed away at the young age of 37.

Oklahoma escaped with a victory over Tennessee that day when Fairbanks decided to go for it on a fourth and one play on the Sooners’ side of the field. When Steve Owens was stopped short of the first down it left Tennessee with a short field and eventually a shot at a 43 yard field goal to win the game.

The kick would miss wide to the right and Oklahoma would hold on to win the Orange Bowl.

In those days, many of the polls crowned their national championship before the final bowl games. Therefore, Tennessee was given the national championship by something called the Litkenhous poll.

This was one of the first computer rankings used in college football. Dr. Ed Litkenhous originally invented his poll for use in college basketball and called himself the “inventor of sports ratings.”

The 1950 title Tennessee is claiming was given to them by a number of rankings not called the AP or the UPI.

Much like Oklahoma, the Vols lost one game that season. Interesting enough, Tennessee’s SEC rival, Kentucky, also lays claim to a national championship that year despite losing to the Volunteers.

That Kentucky team actually beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl 13-7. Afterwards the Sooners were named national champions by the AP and UPI giving Bud Wilkinson and the Billy Vessels-led Sooners the program’s first national championship.

So, if all of that is not confusing enough to figure out, try thinking about how many times the Sooners could have claimed national championships.

Oklahoma was actually crowned by another poll just as legit as the Litkenhous in that same 1967 season. In fact, while Oklahoma only claims 7 national championships, they could play the SEC game and lay claim to as many as 17 titles.

In a few cases the Sooners would have a pretty good argument, but to show the integrity Oklahoma has always used in how they claim championships, you only need to look to the 1915 season.

In 1915 there was no AP or UPI polls. In fact, there wasn’t any poll considered to be the most credible. Therefore, no clear national champion was named and it was split among three teams. Pittsburg, Cornell, and Oklahoma.

All three teams went undefeated that season, yet only Pittsburg and Cornell are actually willing to claim the championship, which would have been Oklahoma’s first. It also would have been a crowning achievement for Bennie Owen, who coached the Sooners and the field his team played on would later bear his name.

Not that Tennessee is as bad as Alabama when it comes to claiming championships they shouldn’t lay claim to, but it does show that the SEC has been throwing out propaganda, as Bob Stoops likes to say, for a really long time.

Perhaps it’s worked. The so-called history of the programs in the SEC has helped to build enormously loyal and passionate fan bases. Without the fictitious championship claims by Tennessee, would they ever be able to fill the 102,455 seat Neyland Stadium? Would their fans be passionate enough to travel the way we will see this weekend in Norman?

It’s that propaganda that will give Tennessee fans the only thing they’ll have to cheer about on Saturday when they will undoubtedly be chanting S-E-C.