US PGA Tour rookie Cauley, who turned professional before last year's US Open after a glittering amateur career, piled up eight birdies in rain-softened conditions to card a flawless eight-under-par 62 on the Seaside Course.
Journeyman Dawson, who has yet to win on the US circuit despite a few close calls over the past two decades, matched Cauley's total after mixing nine birdies with a lone bogey.
Britain's Greg Owen, American Boo Weekley and Australian Rod Pampling were a further two strokes back after opening with 64s while US Ryder Cup captain and tournament host Davis Love III was among a group of nine knotted at 65.
Cauley, who earned his 2012 US PGA Tour card via the non-member money list after just eight starts on the circuit last year, was delighted with his bogey-free form at Sea Island.
"Really no complaints today," the 22-year-old said after totalling only 24 putts in his round and covering the back nine in six-under 29.
"I've been struggling with my driving a little bit lately but I've been working hard on that and was able to drive it really well today.
"And then I took advantage of that with some great iron shots and made most of the putts, so all in all it was a really good day."
Cauley, who emulated players such as Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods by earning his US PGA Tour card without having to attend qualifying school, has set his sights on a maiden victory after recording six top-10s this season in 27 starts.
"Obviously I've thought about winning every tournament I've teed up in this year," he said. "It's been a long year and although I've played a lot this year, I haven't won.
"This is probably going to be it. This is probably my last tournament (this season)."
Also searching for a breakthrough victory is the 49-year-old Dawson, who joined the US PGA Tour in 1991 and came closest to winning at the 1995 Greater Milwaukee Open where he finished second after closing with a 67.
"That would be real huge," Dawson, who has made only six cuts in 20 starts this season, said. "I'm looking forward to doing that (winning). I've got a good start so far."
Among the bigger names competing in the third of four events in the US PGA Tour's Fall Series, former world number one Vijay Singh and 2003 US Open champion Jim Furyk carded matching 66s.
Ben Crane, who won last year's title in a play-off with fellow American Webb Simpson, returned a 68.