In the last 10 years, 20 different schools signed at least one Top 10 recruiting class (via the 247 Composite):
- 10x: Alabama
- 9: Georgia, Ohio State
- 8: LSU
- 6: Auburn, Clemson, Michigan, Texas, Texas A&M, USC
- 5: Notre Dame, Oklahoma
- 4: Florida, Florida State
- 2: Ole Miss, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee
- 1: Miami, UCLA
This list makes sense, right? Wins follow talent, rinse, repeat.
Here’s the question, especially as it relates to Tennessee: how often does talent follow wins?
Do you have to win at an elite level before you can recruit at one? For this exercise, let’s ask it this way: how many programs have signed a Top 10 recruiting class without winning 10+ games in any of the four previous years?
That’s the question for Tennessee’s program right now, sparked by the commitment of Nico Iamaleava, the Vols’ highest-rated prospect since Bryce Brown in 2009. With NIL opportunities and a record-breaking offense, the Vols have momentum.
It didn’t translate into adding more blue chip players into the fold this week, though the Vols have several more on campus this weekend. Missing out on guys we may have talked ourselves into can send the narrative back in the other direction. So maybe it’s helpful to take a more objective look: how realistic is it to expect the Vols to land a Top 10 class before they “prove it” on the field by winning 10+ games?
In the last six years – so 60 Top 10 classes – I count two instances of a program landing a Top 10 class without having won 10+ games in the four previous years (or Texas A&M going 9-1 in 2020).
Let’s start there, in fact: the Aggies finished with the #6 recruiting class in February of 2020. That followed years of 9-4 and 8-5 in Jimbo Fisher’s first two seasons, 8-5 and 7-6 in Kevin Sumlin’s last two. At that point, the Aggies last won 10+ games with Johnny Football in 2012, eight years earlier. Jimbo Fisher, however, won 10+ games at Florida State every year from 2012-2016, including a national championship. That certainly earned them a little extra juice, and A&M paid it off with just one loss in 2020 and a win over Alabama in 2021.
The only other instance in the last 10 years of a team landing a Top 10 class without a recent year of 10+ wins also comes from Texas: the Longhorns finished #3 in the 2018 recruiting rankings. Tom Herman went 7-6 in his first season just before that, and followed three years of seven losses under Charlie Strong. At that point, Texas hadn’t won 10+ games since making the BCS Championship Game in 2009, a nine-year gap. Herman also immediately paid that class off with a 10-4 season in the fall of 2018.
For both Texas in 2018 and Texas A&M in 2020, it wasn’t so much that a ton of true freshmen from one elite class made all the difference, but that the program had real momentum which manifested itself in both recruiting and on fall Saturdays. It became sustained success at A&M, less so for Texas (though shout out to the Mannings).
Either way, these are the only two examples of a program signing an elite recruiting class without a recent season of 10+ wins in the last six years.
So yeah, it’s hard to do and clearly the exception to the rule. The rich tend to get richer in this sport. But Tennessee is a good fit for the kind of “formerly rich” program that could potentially pull it off. We know that’s true, because if you back it up to the last 10 years, you find a few more examples:
- Texas also signed Top 10 classes in 2015 and 2016 under Charlie Strong, despite having no 10+ win season since 2009
- Tennessee did it under Butch Jones in 2014 and 2015, despite having no 10+ win season since 2007
- UCLA and Ole Miss did it in 2013. The Bruins last won 10+ games in 2005. The Rebels did it with Cutcliffe and Eli in 2003.
Is this happening less often these last six years as part of more overall talent consolidation? Could be. Given who is still doing it – and that Tennessee almost did it with Jeremy Pruitt’s 11th-rated class in 2020 – it may be as much resource consolidation as anything.
Maybe the more relevant question for Tennessee is, how different is the challenge facing Josh Heupel right now than the one Butch Jones faced when he signed Top 10 classes in 2014 and 2015? Those groups certainly had the advantage when it comes to proximity to Tennessee’s on-field success. Our last 10+ win season was in 2007. That’s a greater distance than any of these other programs faced. Butch’s classes were also heavier on in-state and legacy kids, an advantage that also becomes weaker the farther you get from on-field success.
But Heupel and company have already landed a bigger fish than any cycle this century other than Bryce Brown in 2009 and Eric Berry in 2007. And those NIL opportunities and the SEC’s overall profile give the current administration some new advantages.
Creating a hardline expectation of a Top 10 class before winning 10+ games on the field seems unrealistic. But believing the opportunity for such a thing can exist at Tennessee? That, thankfully, still appears to be true here. The Vols are 15th in the 2023 ratings right now with only 10 commits. There’s a lot of work left to be done, on and off the field. Nothing will help Tennessee more in recruiting than doing more work on the field; this week was a reminder that you tend not to skip steps in this process, and there are still real stakes in this thing every Saturday.
But the work Tennessee has already done in recruiting, and the surge in competitiveness in year one under this staff, has given the Vols a chance to make that next step in recruiting, even 15 years removed from a 10+ win season. It still speaks to the overall strength of the program, all these years later, that multiple coaches have had those opportunities. And both in recruiting and on Saturdays – and not too many from now – I’m excited to see what this group can do with their chance.