That doesn't mean the Vols have had a shortage of talent. It does mean the playing field in personnel has evened out among the upper echelon in the SEC. In recent years, Tennessee has not had more talent than Georgia or Auburn or LSU. Since 2001, those teams have combined to win all five SEC championships, one national title and record two second-place finishes in the final AP poll.
In this decade, that trio has surpassed the achievements of Tennessee and Florida, the dominant SEC teams in the 1990s.
And Alabama got back on track this season, going 9-0 and vaulting into the top five before losing its last two games of the regular season.
Where did Tennessee rank talent wise in the SEC this past season?
That's hard to say. I thought LSU was the most talented team with Georgia second. You could throw a blanket over Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and Florida.
That would make Tennessee arguably the most talented 5-6 team in SEC history.
The upcoming NFL draft will support my claim.
Tennessee figures to have three players selected in the first three rounds - perhaps five if Justin Harrell and Arron Sears elect to come out -- and as many as 10 picked overall, not counting Harrell and Sears. A few more likely will sign as free agents. That's considerable talent.
NFL scout Chris Landry Titans, projects the Vols will have three players taken on the first day of the draft: Defensive back Jason Allen, defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona and defensive end Parys Haralson.
Landry thinks Allen - if healthy - will be first Vol selected with Mahelona going second. Allen suffered a dislocated hip during the Georgia game. Hip movement is more vital to a cornerback than a safety.
``Jason Allen is a first-day guy if he checks out healthy,'' Landry said. ``He'll hit you. He's a play maker. He has long arms and leaping ability. His strength is he makes plays on the ball. He's a tall (6-2), smooth athlete. I love the way he fills the hole hard against the run.''
Landry said Allen needs to run better than a 4.55 in the 40 to be a first-round pick and-or project to play corner in the NFL.
``I'm not ruling out the fact he could play corner at the next level,'' Landry said. ``How he moves and how much flexibility he has are important. I like him. Big corners are hard to find.''
Landry sees Mahelona going in the second or third round, depending on the number of underclassmen that declare at the defensive tackle position.
Even though Mahelona's numbers declined - he went from five sacks and an SEC-high 18.5 tackles for loss in 2004 to two sacks and eight tackles for loss - he helped his NFL stock by staying at UT another year, Landry said.
``It's not just about how many tackles you have,'' Landry said. ``It's about learning to play blocks better. I don't think he would have been taken as high last year. If he'd come out, he would definitely have been a second-day guy. He's strong at the point of attack and plays with good leverage.''
Haralson, who led the Vols with 8.5 sacks, is 6-2 and 260. He's a bit of an inbetween player in that he could play defensive end or outside linebacker.
``He's undersized,'' Landry said. ``He'll have to play the Dwight Freeney position, a wide-five technique. But he's not Dwight Freeney. He's probably more of a right side (end). He could play strong side in a 3-4 scheme.''
A few years ago, Landry loved linebacker Kevin Simon. That was before Simon's second major knee injury forced him to miss most of the 2004 season. In his only two full seasons at Tennessee, Simon led the team in tackles: 2003 and 2005.
Simon has lost much of his explosiveness because of injuries, Landry said.
``Injuries have hurt Simon,'' Landry said. ``You worry about that. I'd be lying if I said otherwise.''
Landry said Simon is undersized (5-11, 237) to be an inside linebacker and would struggle to cover a 6-4 tight end because of his height.
``He could probably play weakside in some schemes,'' Landry said. ``He could be a nickel backer. He has pretty good cover skills. Before his injuries, his cover skills were outstanding. He has good awareness, change of direction, body control, he can step over trash - blockers - and he's very active. He's not Al Wilson but he's certainly an intense guy that has leadership qualities.''
Landry said Simon is more athletic than Miami's undersized middle linebacker, Zach Thomas.
Here's Landry's take on several other Vols:
Running back Gerald Riggs: ``A physical, power runner with limited speed.
Not a real good receiver. Not well aware as a blocker. He's a second-day guy. It's
more difficult to run over people at this level. He won't be a starter. He doesn't
have the versatility you like. He's not special with anything but power. He doesn't
have the ability to change directions or move his feet, and he rarely makes the
first guy miss.''
Offensive lineman Cody Douglas: ``Versatile. Can play guard or right tackle. Has strength, power, good technique, good balance and body control. Limited athletically. Struggles in space but not a problem in zone blocking scheme. I like him. Could be a first-day guy. He's a really strong football player.''
Right tackle Albert Toeaina: ``Massive run blocker who engulfs defenders. Decent to good short-area quickness. Good instincts. He's raw, lacks footwork and hand placement. I think he's a second-day guy. You worry (about his attitude) a little bit. I have a saying: When you get in the league, money makes you more of what you are.''
Receiver C.J. Fayton: ``I like this guy. He's got good quickness and body control. He could do a number of things athletically, but I'm not quite sure what you do with him. He could play the slot. He'll be a 4-5 round guy.''
Receiver Chris Hannon: ``He's an athlete, very skinny, more of a straight-line guy. He doesn't sink his hips and get out of breaks. Not excited about going over the middle. I'm not high on him. He's not tough and he doesn't play all that fast. Not sure if he'll be drafted.''
Linebacker Omar Gaither: ``I like him in coverage. He has a good feel for pass routes. He struggles over the tight end. Doesn't play the run well, gives up ground, more of an open-side guy. I'd like to see him be more physical and use his hands better in shedding blocks. Athletically, he's intriguing. Draftable late.''
Defensive end Jason Hall: ``He's a classic 'tweener. Doesn't have the strength or power for end and doesn't have the speed or instincts to play linebacker. He's a smart kid but not an instinctive football player. I don't know how important football is to him. I'd like for him to have worked harder. Sometimes on film, his effort was a question. He's got some ability. A late-round pick or free agent.''