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This is a good story about how to win in college football these days.


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It was written by John Pennington about UT in particular, but its basic tenets stretch across the entire landscape of college football.

Pennington: Assembly line is out of whack for Vols

By John Pennington

Originally published 10:00 p.m., November 27, 2008

Updated 10:00 p.m., November 27, 2008

In the late 1990s, General Motors gained market share and huge profits thanks to the increased sales of light trucks and sports utility vehicles.

In 2004, GM took money away from the design of other makes and models to further push its SUV production.

But by 2006, gas prices began to rise. Hybrids became more popular. And in 2008, gas hikes resulted in such a drop in SUV sales, that GM might need a government bailout just to survive.

So what does that Wikipedia view of GM have to do with sports? Simple.

Tennessee football IS General Motors - great in the 1990s, hurting now, and still making SUVs in a hybrid world.

Look around the Vols' marketplace. The SEC is being dominated by a pair of "hybrids." Take the old idea of "my 11 can whip your 11" and upgrade it. Creating favorable match-ups is now just as important as signing the top high school stars.

Four years ago, coach Urban Meyer brought a "gimmicky" system into the league. We now know that his spread offense, which is based on creating bad match-ups for his opponents, works pretty darn well, whether it's using Florida's talent or Utah's talent.

Want to cover the blazing fast running backs out of the Gators' backfield? Congrats, Tim Tebow's going to run it down your throat. Want to take out Tebow? Enjoy tailback Jeff Demps or receiver Percy Harvin zipping past you. Pick your poison.

At Alabama, Nick Saban doesn't run anything as funky as Meyer does. He just uses his personnel in ways that take advantage of their strengths. He doesn't view a running back and say, "Well, you're third team, you'll not be used until our top two backs come out." He finds ways to utilize each player's unique skill set.

Got a safety who can't cover well, but has good speed? He's the new third down blitzer and he never steps on the field for anything else. Got an enormous defensive tackle? He'll also be the goal-line fullback.

Saban comes from the NFL where teams have 53-man rosters. A player might not be good enough to start at his natural position, but he'll be used in ways that take advantage of the talents he does have. That's a must in the pros.

Even Meyer has done it with his super-fast running backs Chris Rainey and the aforementioned Demps who are used as lightning quick punt-blockers.

Aside from Gerald Jones and Eric Berry being used in the Snap-It-To-The-Guy-Who-Runs-Straight-Ahead package, has Tennessee worked to create bad match-ups for their opponents? Or have they simply relied on "out-athleting" opposing teams?

You know the answer. And that's a problem when you don't have as many four- and five-star athletes as you used to have.

Over the last four years, Tennessee has brought in 42 four or five-star recruits. They've won 28 games in that span. Auburn has also brought in 42 top-flight recruits, but it has won 34 games. South Carolina has signed only 33 top prospects, but it has matched UT with 28 wins.

Vol football still relies on having better players than the other team. That's old school, not new school. Tennessee is still building SUVs in a hybrid world.

On The Subject Of Recruiting

There's a myth out there that I'd bought into and even helped to sell over the past few years, and it turns out I was wrong. Here's the myth: Tennessee has to have a spectacular recruiter as its head coach to have a chance in the SEC.

Like many others, I've pointed to the fact that Tennessee doesn't have a great in-state recruiting base (true) and that new SEC coaches have closed the borders to their own states (false).

In looking at the numbers, I've changed my mind. Sure Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia get the majority of their talent from inside their own borders, but their state lines aren't un-crossable.

In the last four years, Tennessee hasn't signed a single four/five-star player from South Carolina. But Georgia has landed three. Florida has grabbed one.

Tennessee has signed just two four/five-star players from Georgia. South Carolina has landed three, Florida four, and Auburn six.

UT has landed just one four/five-star guy from Alabama. South Carolina landed one as well. Florida and LSU have both signed two.

Most incredibly, in the last four years Tennessee has signed only a pair of four/five-star recruits from Florida. South Carolina has gone into the Sunshine State and grabbed eight top-caliber players. Georgia has signed five, Alabama eight, Auburn eight and LSU a whopping 11.

That's 42 stud recruits from Florida who have left their home state for other top SEC schools. Only two of those 42 have landed in Knoxville.

So this "closed borders" business isn't exactly accurate. Several teams are still walking away with good players from states like Florida and Georgia. Steve Spurrier and Tommy Tuberville aren't considered ace recruiters, but they've been able to cross state lines that Tennessee recently hasn't.

And the UT program hasn't been dominant in its home state, either. In the last three years, the Vols have signed six four/five-star players from the Volunteer State. Alabama has raided the state for four.

Time To Change The Mindset

Look, I understand the importance of recruiting. Winning is easier the more talent you have. But my message to UT athletic director Mike Hamilton is this: Winning can lead to good recruiting, so worry about winning first. Tennessee needs a coach who can win with less in the outset, then turn those wins into eventual recruiting success.

Florida (65), LSU (56), Georgia (52), and Alabama (50) all have more four/five-star players on their rosters than the Vols do (42). Tennessee needs to find a coach who doesn't have to have the best talent on the field to win. And those coaches are out there.

This year alone, Mike Leach is 10-1 in the Big 12 with just nine four/five-star guys on his roster. Earlier this season he beat Texas which has 51 top signees.

Oklahoma, which whipped Texas Tech this year but lost to them last year, has 55 top players. When you can go 2-2 against teams that out-man you five-to-one in star power, you're doing a pretty good job of "coaching up."

At North Carolina, Butch Davis is 7-4 with just 19 four/five-star guys. His recruiting is improving, too, just as it did at Miami.

Brian Kelly is 9-2 at Cincinnati with exactly zero four/five-star players. Big East or not, that's pretty solid work.

So go forth, Mr. Hamilton, and find someone with an outlandish system who can create bad match-ups via formations. Someone who can trick, deceive and confuse his opponents a la Meyer. Someone like a Leach or a Kelly, for example.

Or find someone with an NFL background. Someone like Saban who's learned how to take advantage of every player's skills, even if that player isn't good enough to start at his natural position. Someone like Carolina's Davis might fit the bill. Or the rumored choice, Lane Kiffin, who spent two years in the NFL.

Winning should be the first worry for Tennessee, not recruiting. Win and the recruiting avenues will open back up. Sure, there will be more work involved for UT's coach than for the coaches at Florida, Alabama, LSU and Georgia, but it's not the impossible feat that some (including myself) have made it out to be.

If it were, Tennessee wouldn't be one of the 10 winningest programs in America since 1930, since 1950, since 1970 and since 1990.

Worry about coaching players up, not out-talenting teams. Worry about X'ing and O'ing teams to death, not National Signing Day.

Tennessee doesn't have to have the most stud players. Tennessee needs a stud coaching staff.

In other words, stop building SUVs and start building hybrids.

John Pennington hosts the Hall's Salvage Sports Source on Sunday at 11 a.m. on WATE.

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