Tennessee has recruited at a high clip over the last four or five years. Even in a “down” year in recruiting for the Vols, they manage to pull a class ranked inside or around the top 20. And it’s because of that high level of recruiting that ESPN has the Vols included on a list of teams talented enough to make it to the playoffs this season.
ESPN looked at the teams in college football with enough talent to both win the national title and also make it to the playoff. By their recruiting metrics, the last seven national title winners were all teams with an average recruiting ranking of 10th or better in the four years prior to winning a title. And all seven of those teams also had at least one No. 1 recruiting class overall.
Based on that criteria, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, and Florida State are the four teams with the talent to win a national title.
ESPN also looked at the talent benchmark for teams hoping to at least make it to the playoffs. By their recruiting rankings, 13 of the 16 teams who have made the playoffs have averaged a top 15 overall class in the four years prior to them making the playoffs. Only Oregon (2014-15) Michigan State (2015-16), and Washington (2016-17) have managed to make the playoffs without averaging a top 15 class.
And according to ESPN’s data, the Vols are one of the eight teams who have the talent to at least make it to the playoffs.
Tennessee has averaged a recruiting class ranking of 14.75 over the last four years according to ESPN’s recruiting rankings. By ESPN’s rankings, the Vols had the No. 5 class in 2015, the No. 14 class in 2016, the No. 15 class in 2017, and the No. 23 class in this most recent cycle.
But Vol fans know that talent isn’t everything. You need a coaching staff that can develop that talent, and Tennessee hasn’t had a staff over the last few years who’s been able to take advantage of that talent.
What the ESPN data also fails to take into account is that the Vols have had a great deal of attrition from those recruiting classes in 2015-17 as well. Granted, most of the teams they listed have dealt with some roster change over the last few years in their classes too. But the Vols have had a large number of players from their 2015 class alone who are no longer on the roster.
Counting players who have declared early for the draft, the Vols only have 11 of their 29 signees from the 2015 class still on the roster. That’s also counting wide receiver Jauan Jennings as currently off the team. But even if he was on the roster, it would still be far below half the total class still on the roster.
Not only that, but Tennessee’s roster last year was actually more talented from a recruiting ranking standpoint, and they ended up going 4-8. The Vols’ average class rating from 2014-17 according to ESPN was 9.75. Yet the Vols had their worst season in program history with that talent.
But Butch Jones and his staff are gone now, and the consensus about new head coach Jeremy Pruitt and most of his staff seems to be that they’re much better developers of talent. But even with the talent still on Tennessee’s roster, a playoff run seems extremely unlikely. Not only do the Vols have less talent now than they do last season (at least according to recruiting rankings), but they also have to deal with a brutal schedule next season.
The Vols are opening the 2018 season with West Virginia, a team expected to be ranked inside the top 20. They then have two easy home games before hosting Florida. After their game with the Gators, the Vols travel to Athens to take on defending SEC champion Georgia. They get a bye week, but they have to face a talented Auburn squad on the road after that, then they host defending national champion Alabama.
Tennessee will most likely be fighting for a bowl game next season, not a playoff berth. But at least Pruitt and his staff have a more talented roster to work with than you might expect.