KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Most analysts believed Tennessee had one of the top three recruiting classes last year.
It's too early to project the Volunteers' rankings this year, but most recruiting experts say coach Phillip Fulmer will still fare well despite a disastrous 5-6 season.
"I just don't see a drop-off," said analyst Max Emfinger, who heads up one of the four major recruiting services that issues top 10 rankings. "I can't see them not finish in the top 10. Every player they take is a superstar player."
National signing day is Feb. 1, and the Vols reportedly have nine verbal commitments.
Tennessee has a losing record and no bowl berth for the first time since 1988 despite beginning the season ranked No. 3 and picked to win the Southeastern Conference. The offense struggled during the season with quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen flip-flopping as the starter.
Most high school players can look past one bad season in determining their college choice, the analysts say.
"They'll tend to disregard a team's poor recent record especially if it's got a lot of tradition and there are a lot of other factors that are going to remain positive such as conference affiliation, television exposure, big-time rivalries that are going to be in place forever," said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com.
"There are just no recruits who are going to think Tennessee is down and out for the count."
Bobby Burton of Rivals.com says recruits are most concerned about how comfortable they feel at a school.
"But obviously winning matters too. If Tennessee were a program that had five consecutive losing seasons they would be viewed differently than a Tennessee with one losing season. Tennessee is still considered a national power even though they had an off year," he said.
Another plus is the hiring of David Cutcliffe as the offensive coordinator to replace Randy Sanders, who resigned Oct. 31. Cutcliffe was on the Tennessee staff for 17 years and from 1993-98 as the offensive coordinator, coaching such quarterbacks as Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Tee Martin. He also coached Eli Manning at Mississippi.
"We have balance, so if you're a running back you should be excited. If you're a wide receiver or quarterback, you should be excited," Cutcliffe said. "A lot of these guys have made it on to the next level. If they haven't made it to the next level, they've been successful as people and that's what we're going to sell."
Tight end Chris Brown and other offensive players seemed excited about Cutcliffe's return, and he thinks prospects will be drawn in because of it.
"He's a proven winner, and he's proven that he can get things done. He's confident in what he's doing, and we're confident in him. And we're going to get this thing done," Brown said.
Cutcliffe's work with the Mannings will likely impress recruits, Wallace said.
"I wouldn't care about being around some guy who coached Peyton Manning. I'd be laughing. I'm not Peyton, so what difference would that make?" Wallace said. "Whereas a kid thinks, 'Wow, he coached great quarterbacks that are in the NFL and that could be me.' He's been associated with that so he's got to know a lot more about what it takes.'"
Still, opposing teams will try to use Tennessee's losing season to their advantage.
"Whether they do it successfully or not is up to the Tennessee coaches," Burton said.
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