1921 was Wallace Wade's first year as a full-time assistant coach for the Commodores, and the intensity of their practices had increased since his arrival (the first workout on September 12). Wade had played guard on a Brown Bruins football team which represented the East in the 1916 Rose Bowl. Before coming to Vanderbilt Wade coached at the Fitzgerald & Clarke School in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where he won a state prep-school championship in 1920 with a 16–3 record. Also moving from Fitzgerald & Clarke were Lynn Bomar, Hek Wakefield, Pos Elam, and Red Williams. Other Commodore players debuting on the team included Putty Overall and Rupe Smith, who played for the Middle Tennessee State Normal School in the years surrounding the First World War.
Returning veterans included Neely, Frank Godchaux, Doc Kuhn, Tot McCullough, Pink Wade, Alvin Bell, Alf Sharpe, and Percy Conyers. Godchaux was the first player to follow in his father's footsteps as a Vanderbilt football player. Captain Pink Wade, father of future Vanderbilt quarterback Bill Wade, moved from fullback to guard. Tackle Tex Bradford had played for Texas Christian University for two years; after sitting out a year at Vanderbilt, he was eligible to play for the Commodores.
According to sportswriter Ferguson "Fuzzy" Woodruff, "While prospects seem fair to middling in most of the big southern colleges, there are two notable exceptions. Dan McGugin expects nothing of Vanderbilt this year. Dan has lost Berryhill, his only reliable backfield man, through the matrimonial route." Coach Dan McGugin was elected to the Tennessee state senate, beginning his term in 1921. According to a story on file in the Vanderbilt University Library quoted by Chuck Offenburger, "McGugin didn’t want to get involved in politics, but he 'was drafted into service by a citizens committee'".
Vanderbilt opened the season at Old Dudley Field against the Middle Tennessee State Normal School of Murfreesboro, winning 34–0. The field was at the northeastern corner of the campus, where Wilson Hall, Kissam Quandrangle, and a portion of the Vanderbilt University Law School now stand, adjacent to today's Twenty-First Avenue South. Normal was coached by Alfred B. Miles. Commodore touchdowns were scored by Tot McCullough, Thomas Ryan, Rupert Smith, Percy Conyers, and Alvin Bell. Two extra points were scored by Smith, and one by Bell. During the game, Vanderbilt began using substitutes. The Commodore, Vanderbilt's yearbook, reported on the passing game: "Practically the only thing of note was the aerial efficiency—Kuhn to Ryan and Kuhn to McCullough". Tex Bradford reportedly had to wear street shoes during the game, because Vanderbilt had not yet received cleats large enough to fit him.
In the second week of play Vanderbilt defeated the Mercer Baptists 42–0, Mercer's worst loss of the year. After no first downs in the first quarter Vanderbilt scored four touchdowns in the second quarter on 173 total yards, 91 on two passes. The Baptists were led by second-year head coach Josh Cody. Before the game, Wade told his players "in no uncertain terms that the coaches were disgusted that such ragged material should display no symptoms of fight".
The Baptists had sustained injuries in its opening game against the Georgia Bulldogs, and their practice schedule was hampered by rain. Near the end of the first quarter, Godchaux finally got off a good punt to Mercer's 10-yard line and Tom Ryan made the tackle. Godchaux returned Mercer's punt ten yards, beginning a drive gaining six yards off-tackle. On the next play Doc Kuhn passed to Tot McCullough for twelve yards and first down on the nine-yard line. Rupert Smith ran to the five-yard line, and then to the two. Red Williams fumbled on the next play, but it was recovered by Alf Sharpe in the end zone.
After a Mercer punt and a return of fifteen yards by Ryan, Vanderbilt began a scoring drive highlighted by Godchaux' 48-yard run around the left end for a touchdown. A Baptist fumble, recovered by Tex Bradford, led to the next touchdown. After Vanderbilt was caught offside, Smith sprinted 11 yards off-tackle and the ball was at Mercer's 16-yard line. Red Williams ran for 12 yards on a split buck play, and Rupe Smith scored a touchdown on the next play. Mercer then ran a fake punt which netted four yards around the left end. The Baptists punted, giving Vanderbilt the ball at their own 39-yard line. After two short gains, Kuhn ran 10 yards from a punt formation and Meiers ran six more off-tackle. The next play was a 55-yard pass from Jess Neely to Tot McCullough for a touchdown, and the half ended with Mercer's 25-yard kick return.
Mercer was again forced to punt in the second half from its 15-yard line, and Neely had a 25-yard return to begin the next scoring drive. Williams reached the five-yard line when he was injured in a tackle, and Lynn Bomar went in as a substitute. On the next series of downs, Meiers scored a touchdown. A long pass was intercepted by Rupe Smith, who returned the ball to his own 35-yard line. Smith ran seven yards, and Bomar crossed the 50-yard line for nine yards and first down. Bomar ran three more yards before Smith ran down to Mercer's 10-yard line. Smith gained a few more on an end run before passing to Ryan for another touchdown. When Mercer again punted, Mixon eluded four tacklers and returned the punt 42 yards before running out of bounds at the Mercer five-yard line. The Commodores failed to score, and the game ended with an exchange of punts. Vanderbilt's starting lineup was McCullough (left end), Bradford (left tackle), Wade (left guard), Sharpe (center), Wilson (right guard), Elam (right tackle), Ryan (right end), Kuhn (quarterback), Godchaux (right halfback), Smith (left halfback), and Williams (fullback).
In the third game of the season, the Commodores traveled to Lexington and defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 21–14 in a close game. The Wildcats, coached by second-year head coach William "Indian Bill" Juneau, practiced their signals under cover of night behind closed gates. The Commodores were considered the toughest team on Kentucky's schedule, and it was the most exciting home game for Kentucky fans in some time; a sportswriter called it "the hardest-fought battle that has been staged on the Kentucky gridiron in many a day". According to Bruce Dudley, the Commodores were outplayed by the Wildcats for three quarters. Their opponents completed 10 out of 20 passes, including passes between quarterback Bobby Lavin and Fuller. Before this game, Kentucky had never scored against Vanderbilt; the Commodores were heavy favorites, with a distinct weight advantage. The Lexington Herald reported, "That Nashville is intensely interested in the outcome of the game is evidenced by the fact that a special wire, giving the game play by play, will be installed at the field and connected with the Nashville papers".
Vanderbilt's first two touchdowns came early. After the kickoff went to Kentucky and the Wildcats' Saunders returned the ball to the 30-yard line, a punt was kicked to the Commodores; after a good return but little gain, the ball was punted back to Kentucky. Lavin fumbled on the return, and the ball was recovered by Neely on the 10-yard line. On third down, Frank Godchaux ran around the end for a touchdown; Rupert Smith scored the second and third touchdowns for the Commodores. After an exchange of punts, Vanderbilt began a drive on Kentucky's 32-yard line. Neely passed 22 yards to Pink Wade, with short runs by Smith and Bomar followed by Smith running around right end for a touchdown; Kentucky's Server kicked the ball into the end zone for a touchback. Alf Sharpe was ejected from the game for fighting, and the Commodores were penalized half the distance to the goal. Neely punted the ball to Lavin, who returned the ball five yards. On the next play, Lavin ran around the edge for 19 yards; three plays later, fullback Birkett Pribble carried the ball in for the score.
After a punt by Neely the Wildcats were penalized 10 yards for holding, followed by an unfavorable punt which put the ball at Kentucky's 30-yard line. Punts back and forth sent Vanderbilt closer to midfield. Godchaux made a 20-yard run around the right end, and Tot McCullough caught a 24-yard pass; Smith then skirted around end for the Commodores' final score. The Wildcats' "Slug" Fleahman blocked Neely's punt, giving Kentucky the ball at the 12-yard line, and Lavin wove through the Commodore defense for Kentucky's final touchdown. Late in the game Kentucky threatened to tie the score, but turned the ball over on downs at the two-yard line; Neely sealed the win by running the ball 34 yards to the 36-yard line. Vanderbilt's starting lineup was McCullough (left end), Bradford (left tackle), Lawrence (left guard), Sharpe (center), Wade (right guard), Elam (right tackle), Ryan (right end), Godchaux (quarterback), Smith (left halfback), Neely (right halfback), and Williams (fullback).
The season's fourth game saw the Commodores, favored to lose by two touchdowns against the Texas Longhorns, pull off a 20–0 upset. The game was the first of a seven-year series, from 1921 to 1928 (except 1924), between Vanderbilt and Texas at the Texas State Fair in Dallas.
Texas won the Southwest Conference with an undefeated record in 1920. The 1921 team was arguably the best in Longhorns history, and Vanderbilt football seemed to be in decline when Georgia Tech defeated the Commodores 44–0 the year before. The Longhorns were coached by Berry Whitaker in his third year as head coach. The crowd at Fair Park Stadium was expected to be the largest to watch a game in Dallas. According to Edwin Pope's Football's Greatest Coaches, "The Texas game, sparked by McGugin's unforgettable oratory, was the big one; and Vandy got out of the year without a loss". Charles Cason wrote, "Instead of hammering detailed strategy into them," coach Dan McGugin had brought his team to the nearby grave of former Vanderbilt quarterback and third-team All-American Irby "Rabbit" Curry in Marlin. On third down near the middle of the second quarter, Texas' Ivan Robertson (with the Commodores' Tom Ryan and Tex Bradford running after him) was intercepted by Vanderbilt captain Pink Wade. Wade returned the interception for 65 yards and the game's first touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Bomar returned an interception for a 40-yeard touchdown. The last Vanderbilt scoring drive came later. After a Vanderbilt interception, Texas drew a 30-yard (half the distance to the goal) penalty for slugging. Doc Kuhn completed a pass to Tot McCullough on the eight-yard line. The Longhorn defense held, but was offside on fourth down. This gave the Commodores a first down on the one-yard line, leading to a line plunge for a touchdown by Frank Godchaux.
Some Texas supporters blamed its lack of depth on the line for the loss. The Longhorns' passing game was considered satisfactory, going 10 of 31 for 125 yards with five interceptions (two for touchdowns), and some felt that any failure of the passing game could be blamed on the line play. According to Dallas sportswriter Joe Utay, Texas lost because of overconfidence. Blinkey Horn, sportswriter for The Tennessean, wrote: "Vandy outcharged, outfought, and outgamed the boastful Texans. Their courage was finer. Their stamina was greater. Thrust into the throes of a Turkish bath day which blistered tongues and made legs weary the McGuginites shook off the galling heat and won a hellish battle on a hellish afternoon."
Texas punted 10 times to Vanderbilt's 14, and the Commodores completed two out of five passes for 57 yards. Texas intercepted the ball twice, and Vanderbilt five times. The Commodores had six first downs to the Longhorns' eight. Each school netted about $7,500 from the game. Texas's only loss this year was to Vanderbilt. The Commodores' starting lineup was Ryan (left end), Elam (left tackle), Wade (left guard), Sharpe (center), Bailey (right guard), Bradford (right tackle), Conyers (right end), Godchaux (quarterback), Neely (left halfback), Smith (right halfback), and Bomar (fullback).
For the fifth game of the season, Vanderbilt played the Tennessee Volunteers at waterlogged Old Dudley Field. Vanderbilt won 14–0, with Fatty Lawrence and team captain Pink Wade (who had lumbago) sitting out the game. Acting as captain in Wade's absence, Doc Kuhn scored all of Vanderbilt's touchdowns; he "made possible the touchdown by miraculous sidestepping", evading two tacklers. According to Blinkey Horn, the Tennessee coaches "never saw, in all the spying trips, such interference as the Commodores made yesterday for Doc Kuhn". In the first quarter, Kuhn's 19-yard end run made the score 7–0; in the second, he had a 30-yard touchdown run with Lynn Bomar as lead blocker.
During the second half Freddie (Froggie) Meiers carried an onside kick over for a touchdown, but it was called back. The Tennessee backs were repeatedly thrown for no gains or losses all game, and steady improvement by the Commodores was noticed. Vanderbilt's starting lineup was McCullough (left end), Bradford (left tackle), Bailey (left guard), Sharpe (center), Overall (right guard), Elam (right tackle), Ryan (right end), Kuhn (quarterback), Smith (left halfback), Neely (right halfback), and Bomar (fullback).
In the sixth week of play, Vanderbilt beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 14–0 in Birmingham. The score reflected predictions, since the Commodores were favored by two touchdowns. Jess Neely played a role in each scoring drive. Early in the first quarter, Vanderbilt had the ball in the middle of the field after an Alabama punt. Two line bucks preceded Neely, who connected with Tot McCullough for a 30-yard pass play. Neely ran for an additional 17 yards, putting the ball on the nine-yard line. After a run by Godchaux, Lynn Bomar bucked over the line for the touchdown.
Quarterback Doc Kuhn started the second half after sitting out the first because of injuries, invigorating the Commodores. The second scoring drive started when Paul Stumb intercepted a pass. Neely ran for 21 yards around the right end before Kuhn connected with Tot McCullough for a 25-yard pass. Rupe Smith (or Kuhn) then ran the remaining few yards for the touchdown. Alabama had a chance to score, making it to Vanderbilt's 18-yard line. The Commodore defense prevailed, Alabama's forward passes failed, and the ball went over on downs. Other chances included Alabama halfback Rosenfeld intercepting a pass with a clear field ahead of him, returning it 32 yards before Vanderbilt's Red Rountree tackled him from behind. Alabama back Charles Bartlett also returned a punt 25 yards before he was tackled by the last Commodore who could have done so. The Crimson Tide was captained by sophomore end Al Clemens, later captain of the first Alabama team coached by Wallace Wade.
On November 9, between the Alabama and Georgia games, the project for a new stadium at Vanderbilt began with the aid of civic clubs. The Commodores' starting lineup was McCullough (left end), Elam (left tackle), Bailey (left guard), Sharpe (center), Overall (right guard), Bradford (right tackle), Ryan (right end), Godchaux (quarterback), Smith (left halfback), Neely (right halfback), and Bomar (fullback).
In the seventh week of play, Vanderbilt faced the defending SIAA champion Georgia Bulldogs at Curry Field, and secured a tie against the favored Bulldogs.
Before the game, the match was described by the New York Times as an "important clash"; another source called it a "tooth and toe nail event." Georgia had the best line in the South, featuring four All-Southern players. No team scored through the Bulldogs' line all year. Georgia was in its second year under coach Herman Stegeman. Birmingham News sports editor "Zipp" Newman wrote weeks before the game, "Stegeman has a powerful team and with all the regulars in the game, the team has a chance of going through the season undefeated unless it be Vanderbilt that stops her".
Vanderbilt's record against Georgia was 6–1; its only loss was 4–0, in 1898, and the all-time score was 184–4 in favor of the Commodores. The Bulldogs were favored to win their first meeting since 1912. In the first quarter, both teams were evenly matched. The Commodores had their best chance to score when Thomas Ryan beat the defense, but he dropped Neely's pass. Vanderbilt also had a chance to score when a Georgia field goal was blocked by Lynn Bomar and picked up by Tot McCullough, who was caught from behind before he could score.
In the second quarter, Georgia outplayed Vanderbilt. The Commodores had two first downs in the first half, both because of Bulldog penalties. A Commodore punt was returned 15 yards by Georgia to the Vanderbilt 30-yard line, and the Bulldogs completed an 18-yard pass from Dick Hartley to halfback Jim Tom Reynolds on Vanderbilt's 12-yard line. After three short gains, Hartley advanced five yards and Vanderbilt was penalized for being offside. Jim Reynolds, gaining a yard or so, went over for the touchdown with a counter on the following series; the close call was disputed. At the end of the half, Georgia had gained 113 yards to Vanderbilt's nine.
The teams were as evenly matched in the third quarter as they had been in the first, with Vanderbilt gaining only two first downs. Soon after the start of the fourth quarter Neely intercepted a pass, weaving for a 25-yeard return to Georgia's 40-yard line. Two long pass attempts failed, and Thomas Ryan lined up to punt. Rupert Smith sneaked in behind Ryan, rushing to recover the 25-yard onside kick from scrimmage. Smith jumped up to get the ball from a horde of Bulldogs after they let it bounce, and raced for a 15-yard touchdown. After he added an extra point, the game ended in a 7–7 tie.
Lynn Bomar's play as a linebacker was noted. According to Nashville Tennessean sportswriter Blinkey Horn, "Georgia would have trampled Vanderbilt to atoms but for Lynn Bomar ... [who] was the stellar performer of the game. In the first-half he made two-thirds of the tackles"; Bomar stopped five Georgia touchdowns that day. Tom Ryan's punting was also key to keeping the game close, despite the Bulldogs' 18 first downs. Georgia defeated Alabama and Clemson in the following weeks, giving Vanderbilt and Georgia equal right to the 1921 SIAA title. The Commodores' starting lineup was McCullough (left end), Elam (left tackle), Bailey (left guard), Sharpe (center), Wade (right guard), Bradford (right tackle), Ryan (right end), Godchaux (quarterback), Smith (left halfback), Neely (right halfback), and Bomar (fullback).
Vanderbilt ended the season with a 9–0 win over Sewanee in the "muddiest game" in its history. The Commodores, playing in knee-deep mud and water, were unrecognizable. The teams were considered a fairly-even match before the game; although Sewanee felt confident that its line gave it a chance to win, it was apprehensive about Vanderbilt's passing game. Lynn Bomar was injured in the game, which was for bragging rights and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association title.
The game was scoreless until the fourth quarter, when Sewanee fumbled the snap on a punt and the punter was smothered by Jess Neely, Frank Godchaux, and Pink Wade for a safety. Later in the quarter, Henry (Hek) Wakefield punted the ball 54 yards from his own 38-yard line and Pos Elam recovered a fumble by Sewanee's Powers. Wakefield ran in the game's only touchdown, off-tackle from about five yards out. Sewanee had more first downs than Vanderbilt—six to Vanderbilt's two—but also had four successive fumbles. The Commodores' starting lineup was McCullough (left end), Elam (left tackle), Bailey (left guard), Sharpe (center), Wade (right guard), Bradford (right tackle), Ryan (right end), Kuhn (quarterback), Smith (left halfback), Neely (right halfback), and Williams (fullback)
On November 30, Vanderbilt accepted an offer to play the University of Florida in a post-season game on New Year's Day in Jacksonville. The regular season ended with four undefeated teams in the South; Centre, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Bulldogs, and Vanderbilt. Centre (which upset Harvard) lost to Texas A&M in the 1922 Dixie Classic, leaving Vanderbilt as the only undefeated team in all its games.
Georgia coach Herman Stegeman, in the section on Southern football in Spalding's football guide, wrote that Vanderbilt had a good year but was unable to play up to its full capabilities and the Commodores should prepare for a fine season the next year. For Stegeman, the contest for the theoretical title of greatest Southern team in 1921 was between Centre, Georgia Tech, and Georgia. Clyde Berryman retroactively listed Vanderbilt as national champion. Lynn Bomar at fullback, Pos Elam at tackle, and Thomas Ryan at end were listed on Walter Camp's list of notable players. Bomar, Elam, Ryan, Tot McCullough, Alf Sharpe, and Pink Wade all made an All-Southern team although, according to the yearbook, Tom Ryan was the only player in the group to appear on an All-Southern team.
The following chart provides a visual depiction of Vanderbilt's lineup during the 1921 season with games started at the position reflected in parenthesis. The chart mimics a short punt formation while on offense, with the quarterback under center.Dan McGugin (Michigan '03), head coach
Wallace Wade (Brown '16), line coach
K. W. McKenzie, Manager