Tennessee appears to be stuck in a college football recruiting spin cycle regardless of the coach.
Six consecutive signing classes by the Volunteers have ranked either seventh or eighth within the Southeastern Conference, according to 247Sports.com, annually placing them behind the league-leading tandem of Alabama and Georgia and ahead of Vanderbilt. With the early signing period of the 2022 recruiting class set to start Wednesday, the Vols were 19th nationally and eighth in the SEC as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Vols can't live on Volunteer State talent alone due to a population base that pales to what Florida and Georgia provide, and their 7-5 record in Josh Heupel's debut season was a nice but small first step away from their abysmal 20-27 run from 2017-20 that included the eventual firings of Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt.
"That's the challenge for a Tennessee, and it's going to become the challenge for Oklahoma here in the next few years," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said this week. "You're constantly having to go into somebody else's backyard. Tennessee historically has had success in South Carolina and in Georgia and in Alabama and in any of the bordering states, and they've been able to get down in Florida, but what really needs to change is when you have one of those cycles within the state where there is a Tee Higgins or an Amari Rodgers - you can't let them leave.
"If you have a great player in the state who can help you win a division or a championship, you have to create your place as a place you don't walk away from, and I think that's the challenge for Josh Heupel. He knows it."
Heupel's hiring in late January that followed Pruitt's termination put Tennessee in a tremendously deep hole in this cycle, especially within its state. Powell defensive tackle Walter Nolen (Texas A&M), Martin Westview quarterback Ty Simpson (Alabama), Nashville Pearl-Cohn receiver Barion Brown (Kentucky), Murfreesboro Oakland running back Jordan James (Georgia) and Spring Hill's Summit High linebacker Keaten Wade (Kentucky) are the Volunteer State's top five recruits according to 247Sports.com and are committed elsewhere, with Memphis receiver Cameron Miller representing the only top-20 prospect within the state committed to the Vols.
Miller is the state's No. 15 recruit.
"Another challenge they've had is that any time you have a potential NCAA sanctions situation and you don't know what the outcome of that is - prospects don't like uncertainty, and they don't like instability," Luginbill said, "so it's hard for these new coaches, and none of it is their fault. When you can't give specific answers, that adds challenges that obviously aren't ideal.
"They may fish a little more into the transfer portal if they have to in order to supplement any negative recruiting tactics that could be used against them at the high school level."
WHERE THEY STAND
How the SEC schools rank in the 2022 recruiting cycle entering Wednesday's start to the early signing period: 1. Georgia 2. Alabama 3. Texas A&M 4. Kentucky 5. Missouri 6. South Carolina 7. Arkansas 8. Tennessee 9. LSU 10. Vanderbilt 11. Mississippi State 12. Auburn 13. Ole Miss 14. Florida Note: Rankings as of Tuesday afternoon
Tennessee's current class of commitments contains a quartet of four-star prospects, including three from the Atlanta area - offensive lineman Addison Nichols of Norcross, defensive end Joshua Josephs of Kennesaw and receiver Kaleb Webb of Powder Springs. The Vols also have a commitment from four-star quarterback Tayven Jackson of Greenwood, Indiana.
While Tennessee doesn't have the stability or success of Alabama or Georgia right now, Heupel's Vols have showcased an exciting brand of play that they will carry to the Music City Bowl against Purdue on Dec. 30. They were dominant against Missouri and South Carolina this season and were never embarassed, even when games against the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs eventually got out of hand.
"I think Tennessee's players right now are better than people think they are, so he's a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of the actual product on the field," Luginbill said. "They lost to the team that won the ACC, the team that won the SEC and the team that was the runner-up in the SEC. They actually had a pretty decent year considering what he inherited."
Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M were the top three teams in the 247Sports rankings Tuesday afternoon, with Jimbo Fisher's Aggies having a chance to sign seven of the nation's top-20 players.
"I think it's a three-horse race in the early signing period with Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in some way, shape or form," Luginbill said. "Of those three teams, Texas A&M is the finalist for the most available players that have the Aggies listed in the top two - a (defensive lineman) Shemar Stewart, a (linebacker) Harold Perkins and a (cornerback) Denver Harris.
"A lot of people are projecting them to choose the Aggies, and if that happens, they're going to No. 1. It would be very difficult for Alabama or Georgia to unseat them."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.