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SEC Recruiting 2016: Grading Tennessee's Opponents

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Five-stars make a difference.
Five-stars make a difference.
Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Tennessee closed out the 2016 recruiting cycle strongly, signing 3 out of the 4 biggest remaining targets on the recruiting big board-- safety Nigel Warrior, cornerback Tyler Byrd, and defensive end Jonathan Kongbo. The only target of note to escape the Vols was five-star high school defensive tackle Derrick Brown who signed with Auburn despite tweeting Rocky Top lyrics during his official visit to Knoxville last week. But what about the rest of the SEC East and permanent rival Alabama? How did Tennessee fare compared to the teams that the Vols face year-in and year-out?

Comparing recruiting numbers across the board

247 Composite Team Rankings
Team Number of Commits Number of Four- and Five-Stars % Blue Chips Overall Ranking SEC Ranking Average Player Ranking
Alabama 24 17 70% 1 1 92.85
Georgia 20 13 65% 7 4 91.48
Florida 25 9 36% 13 6 88.73
Tennessee 21 10 48% 14 7 89.60
Texas A&M 21 8 38% 18 8 88.71
South Carolina 26 5 19% 26 10 85.98
Kentucky 25 3 12% 34 12 85.27
Missouri
18
1 6% 53 13 84.07
Vanderbilt
20
1 5% 54 14 83.58

Looking at the aggregate numbers, there's a very clear breakdown between the elite and also-rans among the Vols' opponents, although an argument could be made for both an upper-upper class composed of Alabama and Georgia, and a middle class containing South Carolina and Kentucky. However, sticking with a two-tiered approach, the upper tier of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas A&M all managed to finish in the top-25 recruiting classes nationally and signed double digits (or in the Gators' case, close to double digits) blue chip recruits. The lower tier, made up of the rest of the SEC East, finished with less than half the average number of blue chip recruits and significantly lower average player rankings. Although Missouri hired new head coach Barry Odom and Vanderbilt finally managed to win an SEC game under Derek Mason, neither team was able to gain any traction in recruiting, with both schools finishing well under their 5-year recruiting averages.

Butch Jones and the New Standard on Rocky Top

Tennessee Volunteers
5-year recruiting ranking 13
2016 ranking 14
Signing Day class movement +8
Blue Chip ratio 48%
Key recruits 4* S Nigel Warrior, 4* CB Marquill Osborne, 4* JUCO DE Jonathan Kongbo
2015 F+ ranking 18

For the last two years, Tennessee fans have entered National Signing Day free from stress and worry, as Butch Jones and the Tennessee recruiting staff long ago locked down top-ten classes. This year, however, much of the Vols' recruiting class remained uncertain up to the last minute, with Tennessee coaches finally able to breathe a sigh of relief only after the highest rated overall junior college prospect four-star defensive end Jonathan Kongbo sent in his Letter of Intent. With a furious closing push, the Vols were able to make the most of a small recruiting class, flipping four-star cornerback Tyler Byrd and three-star wide receiver Latrell Williams from Miami, keeping four-star safety and Vol legacy Nigel Warrior away from Alabama, and getting a recommitment from the aforementioned Jonathan Kongbo.

Outlook: Not only did Tennessee sign a class with an almost 50% Blue Chip ratio, the Vols managed to stockpile talent at crucial positions (quarterback, running back, defensive back) without needing immediate contributions from most of the incoming recruits. As noted by both Will (2016 Recruiting: Icing on the Cake) and Joel (Vols Graduate to Stockpiling Talent), the Vols have finally reached a point where coaches can concentrate on building depth and grooming players for the future rather than worrying about filling starting roles. There's no position on the roster that illustrates the bounty of talent that Tennessee has amassed more than the offensive line, where the Vols can expect to redshirt at least two of three incoming recruits Ryan Johnson, Marcus Tatum, and Nathan Niehaus. In Butch Jones' first three years in Knoxville, coaches were struggling to find enough players to simply fill out the two-deep.

For those already thinking ahead to the 2017 recruiting class, expect the Vols to concentrate on multiple high school defensive linemen and running backs. Tennessee whiffed on top targets Derrick Brown (5* DT, Auburn), Tony Clayton (4* DE, Florida), and Jordan Smith (4* DE, Florida) in the 2016 class, and rather than reach further down the board, coaches opted not to sign any high school defensive linemen. It's possible that Incoming outside linebackers Daniel Bituli and Ja'Quain Blakely could potentially grow into weakside defensive ends, but given the wealth of defensive line talent in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia in the 2017 class, Tennessee is likely to sign at least 4 if not 5 high school linemen.

Grade: A. The Vols signed a very good collection of talent, but missing on so many elite defensive linemen doesn't merit an A+.

Division Opponents: The SEC East

Georgia Bulldogs
5-year recruiting ranking 6
2016 ranking 7
Signing Day class movement +1
Blue Chip ratio 65%
Key recruits 5* QB Jacob Eason, 5* ATH Mecole Hardman, 5* TE Issac Nauta
2015 F+ ranking 30

In most cases, the first recruiting class under a new head coach is a hastily assembled collection of holdover recruits from the former regime, flips from other schools, and more lightly regarded recruits thrown last minute offers. That's not exactly what happened at Georgia this cycle, where new head coach Kirby Smart added a bevy of highly ranked recruits to the already star-studded bunch who pledged to former head coach Mark Richt. The Bulldogs took advantage of an unusually good year in-state, pulling in three five-star recruits and ten four-star recruits to finish with a ridiculous 65% Blue Chip Ratio, bested only by Alabama's 70% ratio.

Outlook: Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, natural attrition and roster turnover from coach Richt's departure mean that many high profile recruits from this year's recruiting class will be expected to make immediate contributions for Georgia to have a successful season. Five-star quarterback Jacob Eason is the odds on favorite to start at quarterback, four-star offensive tackle Ben Cleveland could start at left tackle, and pass catchers like five-star tight end Issac Nauta and four-star Riley Ridley will be thrown into the two-deep from day one. Kirby Smart pulled in an incredible recruiting class, but even with all that talent, the new coaching staff will need to be at their level best to replace three-fifths of the offensive line, two starting linebackers, and important contributors along the defensive line.

Grade: A+ recruiting class, but the Bulldogs need many of these recruits to be ready immediately.

Florida Gators
5-year recruiting ranking 8
2016 ranking 13
Signing Day class movement -6
Blue Chip ratio 36%
Key recruits 4* QB Feleipe Franks, 4* WRs Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland, and Joshua Hammond
2015 F+ ranking 27

To be blunt, Florida's 2016 class is very reminiscent of Derek Dooley's recruiting. Although head coach Jim McElwain was able to secure some really good talent at the top end of the class with four-star quarterback Feleipe Franks, a trio of four-star wide receivers, and a pair of four-star defensive ends (both of whom were coveted by Tennessee coaches), the bottom half of this recruiting class is thoroughly mediocre. More importantly, Florida coaches failed to capitalize on a good in-state class, signing only three of the top 25 players in-state according to the 247 Composite, being completely shut out of the top 5, and getting thoroughly embarrassed as four-star defensive tackle Shavar Manuel flipped to Florida State on signing day. Florida's in-state rivals capitalized on the Gators lack of success, with Florida State signing five of the top 25 and Miami matching Florida by signing three under first year head coach Mark Richt. Auburn, Clemson, LSU, and Ohio State joined in the poaching, with each school taking home two of Florida's best.

Outlook: It's not all doom-and-gloom as the Gators still finished 13th in the overall rankings, one spot ahead of the Vols. However, Florida signed four more players than Tennessee, failed to match the Vols' Blue Chip ratio, and had a lower average player ranking. For fans accustomed to stellar recruiting under former head coaches Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp, it must be a disappointment to finish in the middle of the SEC pack and whiff on so many of best high school players in the Sunshine State.

Moreover, many of the best players in the 2016 class will be expected to contribute immediately, with quarterback Franks and wide receivers Swain, Cleveland, and Hammond all expected to land in the two-deep immediately. Unlike Georgia's incoming quarterback Jacob Eason, Franks (a flip from LSU) is an unpolished player who will need extensive coaching to reach his full potential. Lest you think this is unnecessarily harsh, read Florida fan and editor of Team Speed Kills David Wunderlich's take: Jim McElwain has a blue chip recruiting problem.

Grade: B+. This is still a good recruiting class, but it's significantly worse than Florida's five-year average and it doesn't have enough early impact players for a team that needs an infusion of offensive talent.

South Carolina Gamecocks
5-year recruiting ranking 20
2016 ranking 26
Signing Day class movement +5
Blue Chip ratio 19%
Key recruits 4* QB Brandon McIlwain
2015 F+ ranking 88

Well, if Florida's McElwain has pulled in a Dooleyesque class, then South Carolina's new head coach Will Muschamp has pulled in a class reminiscent of Lane Kiffin. The Gamecocks' 2016 class is chock full of academic risks and partial qualifiers outside of four-star quarterback Brandon McIlwain (no relation, unfortunately, to the Florida head coach). Tennessee coaches recruited a number of South Carolina's signees and passed on all of them, including four-star cornerback Jamarcus King, three-star running back Rico Dowdle, three-star defensive end Keir Thomas, and three-star wide receiver Randrecous Davis. In particular, Vols' coaches loved the junior college cornerback King, but were unsure that he would qualify or be able to remain eligible once enrolled. Two more South Carolina signees are unlikely to make it in, with four-star offensive tackle Javon Kinlaw seemingly certain to detour through junior college and former Alabama and current junior college running back Tyren Jones apparently ineligible.

Outlook: Looking at the number of offers from other Power-5 school, there's no question that most if not all of the players in the Gamecocks' recruiting class are solid additions purely from an athletic standpoint. The problem for head coach Will Muschamp is twofold: 1) can he qualify and keep enough of this class out of academic trouble that he can exploit their athletic prowess and 2) can he develop the raw talent that he's signed fast enough to catch up to purported rivals Clemson, Georgia, and Tennessee?

Grade: B+ from a talent standpoint, but if players can't enroll, this ranking will plummet in a hurry.

Recap from Garnet and Black Attack: South Carolina 2016 Recruiting class recap.

Kentucky Wildcats
5-year recruiting ranking 31
2016 Ranking 34
Signing Day Class Movement -2
Blue Chip ratio 12%
Key recruits 4* OT Landon Young, 4* C Drake Jackson, 4* ILB Kash Daniel
2015 F+ ranking 91

Kentucky fans are more than ready for head coach Mark Stoops to lead the Wildcats back to a bowl game and with another solid recruiting class, he may finally have enough talent on hand to avoid fading down the stretch. Stoops refocused the Wildcats' recruiting efforts on the talent-rich state of Ohio, where he can sell the allure of the SEC and avoid going head-to-head with conference rivals for recruits. It's a strategy that's worked fairly well, as he's been able to consistently take recruits away from schools in the middle of the B1G. Stoops also focused on keeping the Bluegrass State's few Blue Chip recruits at home and he's also been successful there, landing the trio of Young, Jackson, and Daniel in this year's class.

Outlook: This is another solid class for Kentucky, but without improved coaching (and some luck), it's unlikely to help the Wildcats do anything other than tread water. At some point, Stoops is going to need to move from "keeping the games competitive" to "beating someone he shouldn't" and so far that hasn't happened. Every season without a bowl game increases the heat on his seat and makes Kentucky fans and potential recruits less certain that he's the right guy for the job.

Grade: B. There are 60+ other schools who would happily trade recruiting classes with Kentucky, yet it's unlikely to help Stoops out. Such is life in the most competitive conference.

Recap from A Sea of Blue: What NSD means for Kentucky on the field.

Missouri Tigers
5-year recruiting ranking 30
2016 ranking 52
Signing Day class movement -
Blue Chip ratio 6%
Key recruits 4* RB Naterace Strong, 3* C Trystan Castillo
2015 F+ ranking 75

Full disclosure: I thought defensive coordinator Barry Odom was a solid hire to replace outgoing head coach Gary Pinkel... right up until Odom thoroughly cleaned house of any remaining traces of Pinkel's regime. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Odom is a perfect fit... but I'm extremely skeptical that a first time head coach can follow in the footsteps of arguably the most successful head coach in Missouri's history and do it all his own way with his own coaches.

As noted above in the discussion about Georgia, most first year head coaches see a dip in recruiting as they try and salvage what remains from the previous administration. Despite what was supposed to be a seamless transition with the promotion of defensive coordinator Odom, Missouri never really seemed to gain any momentum in recruiting. The Other Other Tigers finished poorly on the recruiting trail, sending out tons of new offers but failing to land any new recruits of note. Odom's newly hired coaching staff better be great at evaluating prospects, because the class they've signed is pretty terrible by the standards of every recruiting service. Missouri failed to sign a number of prospects who lost interest following Pinkel's departure and the coaching staff didn't replace them with anyone of note.

Outlook: The Other Other Tigers graduate five seniors in the two-deep along the offensive line. Good thing they signed a class full of talented repla--oh, never mind, Missouri managed to ink two unheralded nobodies. Well, the OOTs need skill position players, too, so I'm sure they added some solid prospects... sure, assuming that the coaching staff can get enough out of the current players to redshirt and develop the incoming recruits.

Grade: D. Better hope Odom is Pinkel 2.0: Return of The Gary.

Recap from Rock M Nation: Odom's first recruiting class leaves boxes unchecked.

Vanderbilt Commodores
5-year recruiting ranking 40
2016 ranking 54
Signing Day class movement -5
Blue Chip ratio 5%
Key recruits 4* CB Joejuan Williams, 3* QB Deuce Wallace, 3* DT Josiah Sa'o
2015 F+ ranking 83

Vandy didn't have the most successful signing day, as the Commodores missed out on three-star defensive end Bradley Anae, but Derek Mason's coaching staff had already enrolled three of their most important recruits: four-star cornerback Williams, high three-star safety Zaire Jones, and three-star quarterback of the future Deuce Wallace.

Outlook: Mason seems to be pretty good at identifying defensive talent and he's certainly no slouch at coaching it. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, Mason probably only has one more year to prove he's making progress and outside of Williams, there's not an instant impact player in this recruiting class. Even more unfortunately for the Commodores, Williams plays on defense and he's probably going to be rusty after sitting out his senior season due to a dispute with the tyrannical overlords at the TSSAA.

Grade: C+.

Recap from Anchor of Gold: There doesn't appear to be a recap.


Permanent opponent: A Rough Beast Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Alabama Football, LLC
5-year recruiting ranking 1
2016 ranking 1
Signing Day class movement +4
Blue Chip ratio 70%
Key recruits 5* QB Joey Freshwater, Jr., 5* DT The Incredible Hulk, 5* WR Rickety Cricket
2015 F+ ranking 1

Nick Saban must quake in his boys medium Alabama polo-shirt and size-6 boat shoes when he considers that Butch Jones almost beat his team of terrifying football robots in Tuscaloosa last year with a team made up largely of sophomores.

Outlook: Yet another class composed of the most talented and lifelike football cyborgs ever created in the secret genetic laboratory in the deepest part of the Alabama swamp.

Grade: F. Didn't your kindergarten teacher tell you it's better to share, Nick Saban?

Rotating opponent: Texas A&M

Texas A&M Aggies
5-year recruiting ranking 18
2016 ranking 18
Signing Day class movement +2
Blue Chip ratio 38%
Key recruits 4* OT Kellan Diesch, 4* APB Trayveon Williams, 4* OLB Aaron Hansford
2015 F+ ranking 34

The Aggies landed a fine recruiting class full of top-tier talent, but the coaching staff must be haunted by what might have been, as several players flipped away from Texas A&M in the week before signing day.

Outlook: While it's not as good as it could have been, the 2016 class added a bunch of top end talent to the Aggies' roster. Kevin Sumlin's problems have nothing to do with recruitment-- instead, he's in trouble largely because of the me-first culture he's allowed to develop in Aggieland. Although defensive coordinator John Chavis is doing yeoman's work trying to turn around a sloppy, undisciplined defense, it's an open question whether or not Sumlin can instill a physical, hardworking attitude in the group of highly touted prima donne he's recruited on offense.

Grade: A-. This is a very good group of players, but will they be willing to work hard once they arrive on campus?

Recap from Good Bull Hunting: 2016 Recruiting class recap.