We’re in this interesting place where matching our best regular season in 14 years is a baseline conversation for year two. That’s in part because Josh Heupel and his team did such a good job exceeding expectations in year one.
So when we look back on “the wilderness”, it’s with a healthy degree of uncertainty about where exactly we are right now. Tennessee’s record, recruiting rankings, and draft picks from 2021 will look similar to what we’ve seen for the last 10+ years. But even that similarity trends positive. If four Tennessee players are drafted this weekend (with Matthew Butler, Velus Jones, Cade Mays, and Alontae Taylor leading projections), that would match the second-highest total for Vol alumni in the last 11 years:
- Six picks in 2017 (Barnett, Kamara, Sutton, Reeves-Maybin, Malone, Dobbs)
- Four picks in 2013 (Patterson, Hunter, Dallas Thomas, Rivera)
And those drafts, of course, came following year three for Derek Dooley and year four for Butch Jones, more time to build on their own terms, etc.
The long view still reflects the wilderness, as Braden Gall’s research showed this week:
In the NFL Draft, the Vols are contemporaries with Missouri, Ole Miss, and Kentucky over the last 12 years. It’s similar to what you find in wins going back through the post-Fulmer era: from 2009-2020, Tennessee went 73-75 under Kiffin, Dooley, Butch, and Pruitt. That .493 winning percentage is likewise 11th in the SEC during that span: just behind Ole Miss (.503) and just ahead of Arkansas (.466) and Kentucky (.463), with Vanderbilt bringing up the rear.
If there’s good news here, it will still feel like bad news in the past tense: though the Vols have won games and sent players to the NFL at only the 11th-best rate in the league over the last dozen years, that’s not how we’ve recruited. Tracking the 247 composite rankings back to 2010 as well, Tennessee is probably right where you expect them to be: still among the top half of the league with the other traditional powers, with a clean break to the bottom half.
Average Overall Recruiting Ranking, 247 Composite 2010-22
Despite Tennessee’s struggles on the field and in sending its best players to Sunday, the Vols have still recruited as a Top 15 team nationally on average. The lowest-ranked class in this span was 25th in Butch Jones’ first two months on the job in 2013. He also turned in two Top 10 classes the next two years.
So sure, in the past tense, it’s a strike against Tennessee. But for the present and future, it’s a great sign: this program, through four different head coaches and few winning seasons, was still able to pull Top 15 classes on average. The idea that you can win here in line with the other traditional powers in this league? That still holds up quite well.
Which leads one to wonder, of course, what we might do if more wins began to follow.
In that department, the Vols are currently seventh in the 2023 recruiting rankings, have Nico in the boat, and are in on several other blue chip prospects. And the projections for this fall, before any of those kids arrive, trend toward the opportunity to make some recent history.
Do that, and Tennessee will give itself the opportunity to make some capital-H History once more. The potential for this place never left. And the Vols are edging closer to things looking a little less like the wilderness, and a little more like the promised land.