When we last visited the Butch Jones Belief-Meter, it was just after National Signing Day, and the meter read "still trying to convince ourselves." We observed that Jones had an opportunity to make a big impression by flipping someone like Carl Lawson, Vonn Bell, or E.J. Levenberry, but that he was unable to make the big splash. Of course, some of the smaller splashes (Ryan Jenkins, Josh Dobbs) may end up making big impressions this season, but that's not something that could be known on Signing Day (or known now).
However, we also observed that this was not a failure, but just the absence of an impressive success, and a much better opportunity for a big success would come in the 2014 class:
This year's mediocre recruiting class falls mostly in Dooley. Jones is making the legacies a recruiting focus--he already has a commitment from Vic Wharton and he spent the evening of the 2013 Signing Day on the phone with 2014 prospect Todd Kelly Jr.--and as he's so fond of reminding us, recruiting is about relationships, and he has a full year to build them.
And then we spent 335 comments arguing about the difference between "he gets a pass on this class, but he needs a big 2014 class" and "He didn't get Vonn Bell, and that's a BAD sign" and discussing which of the two is the more appropriate position. In the end, I think most of us agreed that--whatever our position--we would reevaluate when we got some data points from the 2013 season or the 2014 recruiting class.
Well, we have some data points on the 2014 recruiting class, and I'm pleased to say that this Belief-Meter update is much more positive.
In my initial post after the hire, imploring Butch Jones to make me more than half-believe, I observed that if you weren't pulling in top ten recruiting classes year in and year out, you were falling behind in the SEC. Well, signing day hasn't happened yet, but the Vols are in the top three in all four major recruiting rankings (247, Rivals, ESPN, and Scout) and #1 in two of them. And while volume is certainly playing a bigger role than average star rating (the Vols are 4th in number of commits and just 11th in average rating), the fact is that Tennessee has the third most four-star or five-star recruits in the country, behind Alabama and Ohio State. The Vols are just one commit (*cough* Evan Berry *cough*) away from having the same number of four-star and five-star commits in 2014 as on the last two signing days combined. That's pretty darn good.
And if you're concerned that Tennessee made a living in the last few years grabbing the scraps left behind by the big boys and never going toe-to-toe with the Alabamas of the world, Jones can assuage that too. Jalen Hurd had offers from Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio State. Todd Kelly Jr. (yes, he in the quoted section, funny story about what happened after that post-NSD article. . . ) had offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, and Ohio State. Dillon Bates had offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Texas.
And if you're concerned that Jones is just taking advantage of a dream setup and making money on legacies and in-state talent that won't be there in the future, Cortez McDowell had offers from Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, and Ohio State. I could go on, but if it's recruiting details you want, Brad has you covered.
If you had concerns about whether Jones could recruit in the SEC (which would've been entirely reasonable), you shouldn't anymore. Jones can recruit in the SEC. And recruiting in the SEC is the first step to winning in the SEC.
And recruiting isn't the only reason to be optimistic. The biggest reason to be encouraged six months ago was that Jones had won over the former players. Well they're still won over. And he's proven he can sell the program to the fans too. He drew a bigger crowd for a practice last week than Tennessee drew for the Orange and White Game in 2012. And while he still hasn't coached any games at Tennessee, but he has done good work fostering camaraderie in the team, and that's a good start.
There are, of course, still reasons for caution. While Jones proved himself to be one of the top coaches in the Big East by winning the title twice in three years, he didn't exactly separate himself from the pack--both championships were multi-way ties. Now he'll be coaching in a conference full of coaches who were top coaches in lesser leagues, and we have no on-field evidence that suggests he'll move to the top of that list. And we may be short on on-field evidence for a while yet. Dooley left him an absolute disaster of a roster (note that two of Jones' projected starters in December are no longer with the team and two more are currently out with injuries), so a season to Tennessee standards is probably a pipe dream. Even making a bowl is not a foregone conclusion, and fans will be forced to look for more subtle signs of improvement and hope for the one game where things come together in a big upset.
Of course, fans have a tendency to run with the optimism and forget the caution, but cautious optimism seems to be the obvious position of the belief-meter. Jones' recruiting and off-field work is as good as Vols fans could hope for and provide plenty of reason for optimism--after all, if you recruit the best, you usually win--but until he coaches head-to-head against the SEC's best and brightest, some measure of caution is necessary. That said, even without throwing caution to the wind, the change from February is certainly dramatic. Now we await the on-field results and hope for yet another dramatic improvement.