Did this surprise Vol head man Phillip Fulmer? Not in the least. He understands that the SEC is a dog-eat-dog conference – on the field and on the recruiting trail.
"It's a very competitive league," Fulmer said, noting that there is "very little difference" between the 12 SEC teams.
"Florida beat us by one point. LSU ... it was basically a turnover at the end of the game. It's that kind of league," the Vol coach said.
The SEC is so balanced, Fulmer believes, that very few games are decided by talent. Instead, victory generally goes to "the team that stays healthy and has the best schedule and has some players with the dynamics to make plays or gets some breaks along the way."
Recruiting in the SEC has become so competitive these days that even the also-rans have a solid core of quality players. Last fall, for instance, national champ Florida beat the SEC East's last-place team, Vanderbilt, by a mere 25-19 score and edged the East's fifth-place team, South Carolina 17-16. Because every SEC program has good players, every team is capable of springing an occasional upset.
"In most conferences you've got two or three teams at the top, and the rest of them are OK," Fulmer noted. "In our league you'd better be ready every Saturday, and it's the same way in recruiting. It's amazing."
SEC recruiting seems to be more competitive now than ever. Florida's Urban Meyer, Georgia's Mark Richt and LSU's Les Miles enjoy amazing success in remarkably fertile recruiting territories. Fulmer, Alabama's Nick Saban and Ole Miss's Ed Orgeron are widely recognized as outstanding recruiters. Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier are developing reputations for their ability to spot and sign quality athletes.
Clearly, the SEC is overflowing with outstanding recruiters these days. Fulmer says that's nothing new, noting: "There's always been good recruiters in this league."
Truth be told, there's always been GREAT recruiters in this league. Spurrier assembled incredible talent at Florida in the early 1990s. Fulmer did the same at Tennessee in the mid '90s. Richt's Georgia teams of the early 2000s were loaded with NFL-caliber talent. Now Meyer seems to be assembling a juggernaut in Gainesville.
"There for a while everybody was chasing Florida," Fulmer noted. "Then they were chasing us. Then it was Georgia. Now it's Florida again."
By stringing together several superior recruiting classes, Florida already has reaped an SEC title and a national title. Based on the Gators' backlog of talent, more championships could be on the way.
"We've got to get after their rears," Fulmer said. "It starts now. It starts in recruiting and it starts in the off-season program. We're well on our way to doing that."