EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Tennessee football history. The Times Free Press previously published companion series on Alabama (May 4-8) and Georgia (May 11-15).
Johnny Majors may have been college football's best player on college football's best team during the 1956 season.
The voters didn't see it that way in either instance.
Tennessee became the first Southeastern Conference member to win an Associated Press national championship, accomplishing the feat in 1951, and the Volunteers were only a couple of weeks from adding a second title five years later.
On Nov. 10, 1956, undefeated and third-ranked Tennessee faced undefeated and second-ranked Georgia Tech before a packed house of 40,000 at Grant Field in Atlanta. Majors was the star senior tailback for the Vols who had success as a runner and a thrower, but it would be his kicking that helped Tennessee pull off a 6-0 defeat of Bobby Dodd's vaunted Yellow Jackets.
Majors produced a 68-yard quick kick in the first quarter and had a 43-yard punt late in the second quarter settle inches away from Georgia Tech's goal line. In the third quarter, the 5-foot-10, 162-pounder from Huntland — which is 55 miles due west of Chattanooga and had a population of 872 in the 2010 census — booted a 50-yard punt to the Tech 7, continuing to give Tennessee the needed upper hand in field position.
Former Knoxville Journal sports editor Ben Byrd would label Tennessee's topping of Tech "the greatest football game I have ever seen."
Tennessee ascended to No. 1 and followed its win in Atlanta by thumping No. 19 Ole Miss 27-7 in Knoxville, but voters were more impressed with Oklahoma's 67-14 blasting of Missouri that same day. Bud Wilkinson's Sooners moved past the Vols and never relinquished the top spot, waxing Nebraska 54-6 and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) 53-0 to close out a 10-0 season that equaled Tennessee's mark under second-year coach Bowden Wyatt.
Having lost out on the national championship, the Vols traveled to the Sugar Bowl and were lethargic against No. 13 Baylor, falling 13-7. Tennessee had opened the 1956 season in Birmingham with a 35-7 drubbing of Auburn, which was a year away from winning the 1957 national title.
Majors had been named SEC player of the year in 1955, when the Vols went 6-3-1, and earned the honor again as a senior, when he rushed 108 times for 549 yards (5.1 per carry) and seven touchdowns. He also completed 36 of 59 passes (61.0%) for 522 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
In the race for the Heisman Trophy, Majors wound up second to Notre Dame halfback and quarterback Paul Hornung in arguably the most controversial balloting in the award's 85-year history. Hornung had been excellent as a junior in 1955 and entered his final year as the decided favorite for the trophy, which he claimed by obtaining 1,066 points to 994 by Majors.
Yet Hornung threw three touchdown passes and was intercepted 13 times in 1956, and the Fighting Irish went 2-8, making him the only winner in Heisman history to play on a losing team. Two other running backs, Oklahoma's Tommy McDonald and Syracuse's Jim Brown, finished third and fifth in that year's Heisman vote despite having superior seasons to Hornung.
For his career, Majors tallied 1,622 rushing yards, 1,135 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. He also punted 83 times for a 39.1-yard average, returned 36 punts for 438 yards (12.2) and returned 15 kickoffs for 344 yards (22.9).
The 1956 season was easily the high-water mark of the Wyatt era, whose last six teams went 33-25-3 and did not make a postseason appearance following the 1957 Gator Bowl.
Majors is the only player in Tennessee history to be named league MVP in consecutive seasons. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987 and had his jersey No. 45 retired in 2012.
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