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Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“Please tell me that Cochran leaving Bama is the downfall of Saban! Also, is Georgia even more of a contender with Cochran in the fold?” – @BuckToTheNasty1
Nathanael: Unfortunately, no, I don’t think this signals the beginning of the downfall for Alabama. It will take more than Scott Cochran leaving for that to happen. They’re still recruiting at an exceptionally high level, and they still have Nick Saban and a good supporting staff. As for Georgia, I do think it makes them more of a contender, but I’m not sure by how much. Cochran is a great motivator and strength coach, but how good of position coach can he be? What about a recruiter? I think it’s definitely a good move for UGA, but I don’t know if it’s as good as a lot of people have tried to make it out to be. We’ll see, though.
Ben: No, it’s not the downfall of Nick Saban. Alabama’s head coach is the greatest college football coach of all-time for a reason. But Georgia is even more of a contender now simply because the Bulldogs did get better with the addition of Scott Cochran. I don’t know whether Cochran will have the same impact because he’s working on special teams and not in the weight room, which is where he cut his teeth, but anybody in the country would take Cochran on their staff. So, in my book, Georgia got closer to a championship.
“Would it take winning the East to be in contention for a top five recruiting class? Or just a season without losses to Georgia State and BYU?” – @VFL_WNC
Nathanael: Yeah, it’s going to take winning the East — or at the VERY least, competing for the East and finishing second — for UT to pull a top five class in the 2021, 2022, 2023, etc. cycles. Not losing to Georgia State, BYU, and teams like Vanderbilt will keep the Vols from having to do damage control and will keep them in it with top-end recruits, but they won’t land the necessary recruits to end up with a top five class unless the on-field results give those prospects reason to buy in.
Ben: It would take winning the SEC East to bring in a top five class in my opinion. To me, in order to beat Alabama, Georgia, Florida, etc. on the recruiting trail, there has to be tangible evidence of being able to beat those guys on the field. Simply beating Georgia State, BYU, and the bottom-half of the SEC doesn’t impress the elite recruits that would land a top five class.
“With the recruiting additions and possible return of Banks, will the Vols have sufficient depth at linebacker in 2020? Will the Vols be able to generate a solid pass rush with the players currently expected to be on the roster or is it worth looking for a transfer edge rusher?” – Corey
Nathanael: I just finished doing the spring position preview of Tennessee’s linebacker position this week, and it was pretty shocking to realize just how thin the group is now that both Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli are gone. UT will get a huge boost over the summer and fall when they welcome in the rest of their 2020 class, but most of Tennessee’s depth at LB will be made up of sophomores and freshmen. You don’t want that.
If Kivon Bennett, Deandre Johnson, Jordan Allen, and Roman Harrison don’t show significant progress in the spring, I think it’s definitely worth pursuing a transfer at pass rusher. It’s probably worth it right now regardless.
Ben: They’ll have a bunch of names, but I don’t know how quality the depth with be. Not because Tennessee’s linebackers don’t have talent, but because they don’t have the experience. Henry To’o To’o will be without a doubt one of the best linebackers in the SEC, but outside of him, who does Tennessee have that you can pencil in as a 100 percent lock to have a great season? The spring will be crucial to developing the linebacker position.
“What’s your take on Kellie’s 1st season leading the Lady Vols?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: I think there’s been improvement from last season, Holly Warlick’s last year. That’s evident, to me, in the Lady Vols beating teams like Alabama, Vanderbilt, etc. that they lost to under Warlick. But UT still doesn’t have the necessary talent and depth to compete with the better teams in the SEC and the country. I’ve been impressed with some of what Tennessee has done this season, but there’s definitely a lot of areas to improve. The Lady Vols weren’t down to the depths that the men’s team was when Barnes took over, but Harper wasn’t dealt a strong hand, either. The Lady Vols were still at a historic low when she took over.
They’ve done about as well as I expected, but I’ll be curious to see what happens in the SEC Tournament.
Ben: To those who keep up with the program, it went about as expected. To those who don’t really keep up, it probably looks like a disappointing season. The Lady Vols have won the games this year that they were supposed to, and all of their losses have been to teams that were better than them. Kellie Harper just doesn’t have a very talented roster, and on top of lacking talent, the roster also has several holes. The expectation at minimum was to make the NCAA Tournament, and they’re currently on pace to do so.
“Is Kellie Harper a lot like Rick Barnes in the aspect of she might not get the big names of recruiting but she’ll develop her recruits so well that she’ll still have a great deal of success?” – @htcook1999
Nathanael: I don’t think so actually, no. We’re already seeing Harper recruit at a higher level than Barnes did when he first got here — even if part of that is due to the Lady Vol brand still being strong nationally and stronger than the men’s team has ever been. It’s going to take a few years for Harper to undo some of the damage Warlick and her staff did in recruiting, but I think you’ll still see UT land high-end recruits. They just won’t be landing top-five classes, in my opinion, for another couple years. I’d like to be proven wrong, though.
Ben: Maybe, but I don’t believe that’s the answer. Harper hasn’t been able to bring in “big names” in recruiting because Holly Warlick set the Lady Vols back much further than just on the court. A lot of relationships were damaged and need to be fixed. Once Harper can fix those relationships, and win a little on the court, she’ll be able to bring in the elite recruits.
“Where should Vol baseball be ranked?” – @BigOrangePruitt
Nathanael: I think ranking them in the top 20 makes sense, and I can somewhat understand the hesitancy to go ahead and put them inside the top 15; but not having them ranked at all blows my mind, and the reasoning that Baseball America gave for not having them ranked was absurd. I know it’s only February and the only rankings that matter come in June, but it’s still frustrating to see this really, really good team not getting respect.
Ben: They’re a top 15 team in my estimation. Few teams have a better resume than Tennessee baseball right now. The Vols are no fluke either; they’re legit. The only reason they’re not in the top 15 at the moment is because Tennessee’s name doesn’t carry a lot of weight around college baseball.
“How high can baseVols finish in the SEC?” – @vol_long
Ben: As high as third in the SEC East. And that’s no slight against Tennessee, but Vanderbilt and Florida are just that good as top five baseball teams in the entire country. Both the Commodores and Gators are legitimate national title contenders. The Vols are talented, but they haven’t reached that level just yet.