Are Vols Recruiting at a Championship Level?

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    Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

    (Note: All recruiting rankings are via the 247Sports Composite rankings)

    Winning championships is the goal for the Tennessee Volunteers football team. And one of the main ways to accomplish that is by consistently recruiting at a high level and getting that talent to live up to its billing on the field.

    So far, Butch Jones and his various staff members have been able to recruit several highly-rated players to Tennessee since taking over in December of 2012. But how do the Vols’ recruiting classes compare to those who have won and competed for championships over the last few seasons? Are the Vols stacking up to the competition or coming up short?

    In order to figure that out, I compiled data on each of the last four national champions and the teams that made the College Football Playoff. I tallied the recruiting rankings of the four recruiting cycles prior to that team winning the championship or making the playoff because that would give an accurate gauge of the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors that comprised those rosters. Once I had those numbers, I averaged them all together to figure out what the mean ranking was for each team for the four years prior to their championship or playoff appearance. I did the same for Tennessee’s roster prior to the start of the 2016 season in order to compare them all.

    Looking back at the last four national champions (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida State), it’s clear the Vols aren’t up to par when it comes to actually winning championships. The only team Tennessee has recruited similarly to is the most recent national champion, Clemson. And there’s a lot the Vols, Jones especially, can learn from the Tigers and head coach Dabo Swinney.

    Other than that, however, the Vols have some catching up to do in terms of recruiting.

    Alabama has been absolutely dominant on the recruiting trail over the last few years. In the four recruiting classes prior to their 2015 championship (2012-15), the Crimson Tide earned the No. 1 overall class each cycle. In fact, Alabama has had the No. 1 class every season since the 2011 cycle.

    No other team in the country is doing what Alabama is doing. They’ve either won a championship, been in the championship game, or been in the playoff for six of the last eight seasons. So how does Tennessee compare to the other champions?

    Ohio State won the 2014 National Championship, and the average class ranking of their four recruiting classes prior to their title (2011-14) is a 4.25. That means the Buckeyes averaged a top five class the four years prior to winning their championship. That championship roster was chock full of talent, and it’s a reason they returned to the College Football Playoff in 2016 as well.

    Florida State won the last BCS Championship at the end of the 2013 season, and their average recruiting rankings were nearly as elite as Ohio State’s. The average ranking of Florida State’s four classes (2010-13) before their championship season is a 5.75. The Seminoles had a roster that averaged just outside a top five recruiting class every season before that year.

    Jumping back to the present, Clemson’s roster wasn’t quite as star-studded as the previous three champions. The Tigers’ average ranking for their recruiting classes from 2013-16 was No. 13. Clemson only had one class, 2015, that finished inside the top 10. And that one only barely did, earning the No. 9 overall ranking in that cycle.

    Tennessee, meanwhile, has averaged a ranking of 12.25 over the last four years of recruiting. The Vols have had two top 10 classes (2014, 2015) and one top 15 class (2016).

    Aside from Clemson, the Vols don’t compare favorable to title-winning teams. They do, however, match-up better when it comes to teams that at least made it to the playoffs.

    This year’s playoff saw Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Washington compete for a national title. I’ve already covered the first three teams (Ohio State’s average ranking jumped up a little for the four years prior to this season, giving them an average of the No. 4 overall class before this year), so all that’s left is Washington. And the Vols have been blowing the Huskies out of the park in terms of recruiting.

    Washington’s average recruiting ranking over the last four years is just 27.75. The Huskies have had only one top 20 class, and that was their most recent 2016 haul.

    The Vols also compare favorably to a few other playoff teams over the last few seasons. The two 2015 teams that lost in the first round were Oklahoma and Michigan State. The Sooners had averaged the No. 14 overall class in the four years prior while Michigan State averaged the No. 29 overall class in that same span. Oregon was one of the four 2014 playoff teams, and their average ranking was a 16.25 in the fours years before that playoff appearance.

    Here is the complete breakdown of the recruiting data:

    Florida State – 2013 Champion
    2013 – 11th
    2012 – 3rd
    2011 – 2nd
    2010 – 7th
    Avg – 5.75
    Ohio State – 2014 Champion
    2014 – 3rd
    2013 – 2nd
    2012 – 5th
    2011 – 7th
    Avg- 4.25
    Alabama – 2015 Champion
    2015 – 1st
    2014 – 1st
    2013 – 1st
    2012 – 1st
    Clemson – 2016 Champion
    2016 – 11th
    2015 – 9th
    2014 – 17th
    2013 – 15th
    Avg – 13
    Washington – 2016 Playoffs
    2016 – 29th
    2015 – 27th
    2014 – 37th
    2013 – 18th
    Avg – 27.75
    Oklahoma – 2015 Playoffs
    2015 – 14th
    2014 – 14th
    2013 – 16th
    2012 – 12th
    Avg – 14
    Michigan State – 2015 Playoffs
    2015 – 22nd
    2014 – 25th
    2013 – 35th
    2012 – 34th
    Avg – 29
    Oregon – 2014 Playoffs
    2014 – 21st
    2013 – 19th
    2012 – 13th
    2011 – 12th
    Avg – 16.25
    2016 – 14th
    2015 – 4th
    2014 – 7th
    2013 -24th
    Avg – 12.25

    By rankings alone, the Vols are recruiting at the same level as some of the teams who have made it to the College Football Playoff. But aside from Clemson, Tennessee’s recruiting classes aren’t quite up to par with the teams actually winning the championships. Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida State have all consistently recruited to a higher degree than the Vols have.

    Tennessee has been recruiting close to a championship level over the last four years. But they don’t have a title, championship game appearance, or playoff appearance to show for it.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.