Phillip Fulmer isn’t mincing words. The goals at the University of Tennessee are clear — return to the mountain top of the SEC East, the SEC, and ultimately, all of college football.
The Vols are two decades removed from a National Championship and one decade removed from an SEC East title. Since 2008, Tennessee has accumulated eight seasons with six losses or more. To contextualize how porous that is for one of college football’s most storied programs, the Vols lost six games or more eight times from 1909-2007.
Now, Fulmer, in the role of Athletic Director, is putting his head coach, Jeremy Pruitt, in one of college football’s toughest positions.
It’s easy to point out that Pruitt has zero head coaching experience. It’s even easier to counter that point by mentioning Kirby Smart, who, similar to Pruitt, served under Nick Saban as a defensive coordinator for championship-winning teams.
However, Pruitt is at a major disadvantage that makes championship expectations (at least, in the near future) unrealistic — geography.
College football has changed dramatically since the Vols last won a National Championship. Over the past 20 seasons, the emphasis on recruiting has been injected with the steroids Barry Bonds used to take. Games are now won both on the field and in the living rooms. Without recruiting classes littered with elite talent, championships are practically impossible.
According to an SBNation article that researched how many blue-chip prospects each state had in regards to high school football, Tennessee ranked 11th overall, placing them on the cusp of the top 20 percent.
The top seven went as followed — Texas, Florida, California, Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana, and Alabama.
Since 1998, only three National Champions have come from outside those seven states — the 1998 Tennessee Vols, 2000 Oklahoma Sooners, and 2016 Clemson Tigers.
Outside of those three cases, one title has come from the state of Texas, four from Florida, two from California, two from Ohio, two from Louisiana, and six from Alabama.
Blue blood programs such as Texas, USC, Florida State, and Georgia have the luxury of resting in elite states for high school football recruiting. Meanwhile, programs like Alabama and Ohio State are such elite brands with elite coaching that their tentacles stretch far beyond the borders of the states they reside in.
Unfortunately for the Vols, they are at a geographic disadvantage and lack the proven coaching to extend their sphere of influence into states such as Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana.
Furthermore, Clemson is approaching an Alabama/Ohio State status where they can attract the top recruits from the top states. The state of Florida has three proven recruiters at three big-name programs in Florida, Florida State, and Miami.
Then, second-class programs such as UCLA and Nebraska now have forward-thinking offensive savants running the show in Chip Kelly and Scott Frost. Meanwhile, Pruitt is a carbon copy of the old Nick Saban philosophy — defensive minded with an emphasis on a slower-paced offense where quarterbacks take snaps under center in the I-Formation.
The college football landscape has moved past this line of thinking, and unless Pruitt somehow blossoms into a Saban-level coach, college football might have moved past Tennessee’s championship hopes.