By Tom Mattingly
Can it really have been more than 50 years since the 1970 Tennessee football team took the field under rookie head coach Bill Battle?
Time marches on, and these “Boys of Fall” are now in their early 70s.
But the passage of time cannot erase the memories of this group, a team that ended up 11-1, the first 11-win season since 1950, and ranked No. 4 in the nation, complete with a 34-13 thumping of Air Force in the 1971 Sugar Bowl.
The 1970 team got there the hard way. The Vols were unranked at the start of the season, owing to the loss of All-American linebackers Steve Kiner and Jack Reynolds from 1969, a number of sophomores in key positions, the need to replace three starters in the secondary, and the uncertainty of a new coaching staff after Doug Dickey left for Florida in early January.
The Vols moved to No. 17 in The Associated Press (AP) poll after a 28-3 win against SMU in Week No. 1 and fell out of the poll after a 36-23 loss to Auburn in Week 2.
A 48-3 victory over Army moved them back into the poll at No. 20, and the excitement mounted as the season progressed.
The Vols forced a still-standing NCAA record 57 turnovers (36 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries) and survived a gauntlet against some of the best passers in college football.
Two season-defining games were played in Neyland Stadium on consecutive Saturdays.
The first was a 24-0 win on Oct. 17 over Alabama and Battle’s mentor Bear Bryant, in which the Vols intercepted eight passes, five thrown by quarterback Scott Hunter.
The second was a 38-7 win the next week over the Dickey-coached Florida Gators. Conrad Graham and Jackie Walker took interceptions back for scores. Walker was an All-American selection in 1970 and 1971, while Graham was tabbed in 1972.
The Florida game was a particularly emotional one, as quarterback Bobby Scott explained.
“The respect I had for Dickey was still there, but when we put on the orange jersey that day, it was blood and guts. We were going to war,” said Scott.
Tim Priest, who stepped down as analyst on the Vol Network before the 2021 season, was team captain and led the youthful secondary, one that included junior Bobby Majors, an All-American selection a year later, and sophomores Graham and David Allen. Tim is still the school record holder with 18 career picks for 305 yards and one TD.
He remembered the first day of fall drills in 1967, when two quarterbacks, Scott and Jim Maxwell, stood out.
“Joe Thompson and I were both quarterbacks,” Priest said. “The first practice was real basic. The coaches may have had an idea who could play where, but we didn’t. We watched Bobby and Jim throw the ball, and I looked at Joe and said, ‘We’d better find another position.’”
Priest became a cornerback and Thompson a wide receiver. Scott was 20-3 as a starter in 1969 and 1970, and Maxwell, known as the “Blue Max,” was undefeated down the home stretch of the 1971 season.
George Hunt kicked the game-winning field goal with seconds left at South Carolina. The final score was 20-18, in the first game for the Vols in the Palmetto State since 1942.
There was a 45-0 win over Kentucky, with Chip Kell, a two-time All-American selection, being named “National Lineman of the Week.” Tennessee dominated the fourth quarter in a 24-6 victory at Vanderbilt. Scott, Curt Watson, Lester McClain, and Don McLeary led last minute heroics in a 28-17 come-from-behind win over UCLA.
In the Sugar Bowl, Tennessee hit Air Force with a 24-point first quarter barrage. McLeary scored twice, George Hunt kicked a field goal, and Scott tossed a TD pass to tight end Gary Theiler. Majors added a 57-yard punt return for a score. The Vols held Air Force to minus-12 yards rushing.
Six Vols earned All-SEC honors, Mike Bevans, Kell, Majors, Priest, Walker, and Watson.
This was a team that created a host of fond recollections for Tennessee fans.
“We give so much attention these days to the individual stars. We forget how important and unique a team is,” said offensive guard Don Denbo. “The 1970 team was a team of individuals who somehow put aside their differences (and there were lots of differences) and melded into a unit. We knew we were not going to get beat. We should not have gotten beat. That team should have been national champions.”
This team’s success was a classic example of an old football adage.
It’s not how you start.
It’s how you finish.