There were lots of questions about Butch Jones when he was hired, questions marinated in the angst of Gruden. But some of the loudest questions surrounded recruiting. We knew he had won at Cincinnati, we knew he was going to be fine behind the podium, but could he recruit? What would this northerner with no SEC experience and recruiting classes at Cincinnati that finished 59th, 49th, and 50th in Rivals' rankings be able to do in the lion's den?
The quiet but growing fear was if the Vols stayed in the basement much longer, a return to the top was no longer an automatic assumption even at a program with our pedigree. To win in Knoxville you have to recruit everywhere. You can't rely on an influx of in-state talent every year. You have to go head-to-head with Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and the biggest names on the board. And you have to win enough of those living rooms to stay in the arms race, one that in 2014 features nine SEC teams in the Top 15 of Rivals' team rankings.
Phillip Fulmer won on Saturdays in large part because he won living rooms. Even as late as 2007, when the Vols finished with the nation's third best class, he was getting it done in Knoxville. When the 2007 class turned out to be Eric Berry and several busts and the 2008 class didn't measure up, Lane Kiffin took over with an instantly-celebrated recruiting class in 2009. It finished 10th in Rivals' ratings, then more than half of its signees never finished their careers at UT. The Kiffin/Dooley class did one better at #9 in 2010, making up the bulk of Tennessee's offensive firepower for the next four years. And then things slowly slipped from there, 13th in 2011, 17th in 2012, and 21st with the Dooley/Butch class this time last year. The nature of this game: to finish 21st nationally is to finish 10th in the SEC.
It's fun to hate Kiffin and blame Dooley, and their fingerprints are certainly on the rest of this sentence, but the main reason Tennessee has lost so many games in the last six years is the other team was better. How bad has it been for Tennessee? From 2008-13 the Vols were 33-41, a winning percentage of .445 which ranks 83rd nationally over that span (via stassen.com). It's 13th worst in the SEC, meaning only Kentucky - not Vanderbilt, not the state of Mississippi - has been worse than Tennessee in the last six years. UT's contemporaries in this range: Vanderbilt, Kent State, Southern Miss, South Florida, and Louisiana-Monroe to the north ranked 77-82; California, Minnesota, Western Michigan, Maryland, and Hawaii to the south at 84-88.
There are fourteen major conference programs who have been worse than Tennessee from 2008-13, and while none of them have been as strong as us historically, eight of them have been to a BCS bowl more recently than we have. Considering the players who will sign today were in diapers the last time we made the BCS, history only goes so far. The other teams here haven't always been this far down the list, not all of them. Some of them have a pulse.
Here are those fourteen schools and the current ranking of their 2014 recruiting class:
California (44), Minnesota (54), Maryland (71), Wake Forest (57), Duke (58), Iowa State (55), Kentucky (13), Illinois (72), Purdue (74), Virginia (38), Indiana (35), Kansas (50), Colorado (63), Washington State (64)
That's an average recruiting ranking of 53, an average which includes Kentucky's rise under Mark Stoops this year. Everyone else in the basement is recruiting at a level to simply climb the stairs.
Meanwhile, Butch Jones is on the roof. Because Tennessee will land the nation's third best class today.
It is an unbelievable accomplishment, its praises being sung by both recruiting diehards and February's casual fans. This story by Matt Borcas at Grantland includes a heading that reads, "Can anyone or anything stop Butch Jones?" When's the last time you read something like that about Tennessee football in
a national any context? It is a work so complete the primary drama today is how the Vols will fit all of them in. If Tennessee holds at #3 in Rivals' rankings it will be the best February effort since 2007, one that hasn't been topped since the Vols finished second in 2002.
The 2014 class is certainly boosted by an unusually strong year in state: RB Jalen Hurd and WR Josh Malone both earned five stars, and four four-stars from the Volunteer State will sign today. But Butch Jones also proved he can do the regional and national work that is required from Knoxville: four-stars TE Daniel Helm from Illinois and CB D'Andre Payne from Washington DC are already on campus, and four-stars from six other states will sign today. And just to prove this isn't a flash in the pan, Butch and company have already received commitments from seven players for 2015, including four four-stars.
There are no guarantees, of course: as mentioned the '07 class was full of busts and you just never know until you see them over the course of several autumns. But if these were the loudest questions, Butch Jones has shouted the answers from Rocky Top. If you dial the winning percentages back a few years, you'll remember that no one in the SEC was as good as Tennessee from 1989-2001. The legacy of what's been done here before helped bring in the class who gives us hope it can be done again.
But that legacy has always been here. It's only now that this hope has begun to look like it used to. If Tennessee is rebuilding a championship program, this is the foundation, and it's as good as anyone's. Now this hope has names and faces. And this hope has a leader.