If you are a Volunteer fan and are associated with any type of social media outlet, then there is a strong chance all you have heard the past two weeks is how wide the gap is between Tennessee and perennial powers, LSU and Alabama. While the injury-plagued Vols are without their best player at 4 different positions (QB, WR, LB, DB), I agree completely. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. Checkerboard Chatter founder, Derek Lusk, brought up a great point yesterday when he said, “Everyone says they want the Vols to catch up with Bama and LSU, but we have to catch the Gamecocks, the Dawgs, and the Gators first.” That statement is so true. Since the success of the Fulmer era, the expectations on Rocky Top have been nothing short of great. We want that magic pill that just fixes everything, and poof we’re back on top of the SEC battling for championships. But to our dissatisfaction, that pill doesn’t exist – it’s a gradual process back to relevance. Now, while the Tigers and the Tide are basically mini-NFL teams, I have never seen them quite this good. Aside from elite coaching, what sets these two teams apart from the rest of the pack is their stability and depth. Meanwhile, the same cannot be said for Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. While the Vols are currently pretty far away from the likes of LSU and Bama, the good news is that they’re not light years away from their SEC East foes. But while they’re within reach of them, they’re still behind – a fact many Vol fans are in denial about, and one the logical fans painfully acknowledge. This fact makes many beg the simple question, “Why?”
First, it is important for Vol fans to get LSU and Bama out of their head. They are streets ahead of us in every aspect of the game, and before we can be the best team in the SEC, we have to be the best team in the SEC East. One thing that has been a constant in every SEC contest so far is that the Vols are good enough to compete with anyone in the nation for one half of football, but have so little depth that it doesn’t matter in the second half. This is such a tough thing to watch for us as fans, because even though we’ve seen this movie before, naturally we grasp onto that sliver of hope that maybe this time it will be different. Now, to be fair to the Big Orange, I firmly believe that with everybody healthy, this season looks a little different. Do we beat LSU and Bama? No. Do we get beat by 31 in both games though? No. Do we beat Florida and Georgia? Quite possibly. After all, when the Vols were at full force they beat the number one team in the Big East by 22 points; a Cincinnati team with a proven, senior QB, one loss, and a lot of experience that will potentially be playing in a BCS bowl come January. But the fact remains, you have to roll with the punches, and until the Vols improve their depth (which brings experience and senior leadership with it), they will be playing catch up in the SEC. Considering depth is attained through recruiting, let’s take a look and compare recruiting classes between Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina over the last 4 years.
Florida: 3rd – Rivals, 4th – ESPN
Georgia: 7th – Rivals, 5th – ESPN
S. Carolina: 22nd – Rivals, outside Top 25 – ESPN
Tennessee: 35th – Rivals, outside Top 25 – ESPN
Florida: 11th – Rivals, 5th – ESPN
Georgia: 6th – Rivals, 6th - ESPN
S. Carolina: 12th – Rivals, 12th - ESPN
Tennessee: 10th – Rivals, 15th – ESPN
Florida: 2nd – Rivals, 1st - ESPN
Georgia: 15th – Rivals, 12th – ESPN
S. Carolina: 24th – Rivals, 23rd – ESPN
Tennessee: 9th – Rivals, 9th – ESPN
Florida: 12th – Rivals, 12th – ESPN
Georgia: 5th – Rivals, 6th – ESPN
S. Carolina: 18th – Rivals, 15th – ESPN
Tennessee: 13th – Rivals, 13th – ESPN
So there are the Gators, Dawgs, Gamecocks, and Volunteers last four recruiting classes. From looking at those numbers it’s easy to tell that over that span of time, Florida and Georgia ultimately came out on top. Tennessee came in third edging out South Carolina, but not by much. The problem in the SEC is that you can finish with a solid class ranked 13th in the nation like the Vols did in 2011, but only have the 6th best class in the conference. By observing these numbers, one would wonder why in the world the Vols have depth issues this year. We should be just as deep as everyone else right? Wrong. It’s important to realize that landing a Top 10 or Top 15 class is great, but if you don’t retain your players after you recruit them and keep them in school, it’s pretty difficult for them to play for you on Saturdays. As we all know, the last three years have been hard for the Volunteer program, but many people don’t make the connection between those hardships and the lack of depth on the field.
The difference between the Vols and every other team in the SEC is that those other teams still have most of their highly touted recruits (that made those class rankings so high) still playing for them while the Vols do not. Those players have developed physically and mentally in the game, and are juniors and seniors now. Meanwhile, Coach Dooley is forced to put freshman out there at skill positions, and other coaches have experienced, talented, veteran players at those important positions. Now don’t get me wrong, several other teams are playing a bunch of underclassmen too. However, the difference is they have senior leadership and experience at least somewhere around them, and the Vols do not. Instead, they have young players leading young players – not your ideal situation. I think that’s why we see our guys shutdown after giving up a big play. They may only be down one TD, but they’re so mentally weak right now that it doesn’t matter. They don’t have those seasoned veterans around them that lead by example that have faced adversity and know how to keep playing. Furthermore, this disadvantage that Dooley has been left with is due to the actions of his last two predecessors: Phil Fulmer and Lane Kiffin.
Don’t get me wrong, Fulmer gave Tennessee several years of excellent coaching and recruiting, and he has done so much for the University. However, having said that, his last two years began the downward spiral for the program. Out of Fulmer’s last two recruiting classes in 2007 and 2008, there are only 8 players left on the Vols two-deep roster. That is such a staggering number! That is where our leadership should be coming from, not from our young guys, but from numerous seniors! Also, it is the responsibility of the coaches to take these promising 4 and 5-star prospects they recruit and develop them into SEC calibur players. This is something that was not done by Fulmer, there were countless “busts” under his watch. Of course, not to be outdone, out of Kiffin’s recruiting class in 2009, only single digits remain as well. That means everyone else out of the Vols two-deep roster is from the Dooley era. That statistic absolutely blows my mind. So while other SEC teams have guys who have elite talent and experience on top of that, the Vols only have one or the other.
The Volunteer fan base must understand what Dooley inherited when he got here. The program wasn’t in bad shape simply because we were losing, it was in bad shape because it was depleted of a staff and players. There is a reason Dooley called his first year, “Year Zero,” and it’s because he’s had to start from scratch. He has had two Top 15 recruiting classes and is recruiting the right type of kids with not only talent, but sound character too. While the wins aren't where he wants them, he has taken care of first things first and helped to restore respect and integrity back to the program. Also, by 2013, he will have his first full term of recruiting classes (from freshmen to seniors) under his belt, and things will be different on the Hill. Youth will no longer be an excuse, and results will be expected. One thing is for sure – Dooley is headed in the right direction, but it won’t be until 2013 that he will fully be out of the shadow of his predecessors’ mistakes. So as we endure these hard times in 2011, be realistic about the blows we've been dealt, and have confidence in knowing that catching up to our SEC rivals will come sooner than later. After several years of waiting, the gap in talent and depth will be closed, and the playing field will once again be even.