Although many will deny it (they don't want to be perceived as soft), distance from home is No. 3 on the list of determining factors, based on a perception formed over a decade of covering recruiting and listening to prospects. No. 4 on the list is a school's track record preparing players for potential NFL careers. This is one that's being heard more and more in recent years.
I'd place educational opportunities as No. 5 on the list of reasons prospects choose a college. Yeah, it should be higher, but that's not the reality. Some honor students are looking for a particular curriculum, but they are also smart enough to know that a college education is what you make of it. However, if you expand that category to include players that are in need of academic support to remain eligible it would rise into the top three.
Back to reason No. 2 on our non-sanctioned list: a program short term championship potential. As pointed out it's not the norm with Tennessee. The Vols normally rate high when it comes to their title chances. With the exception of a downturn in football fortunes in the late 70s and early 80s the Big Orange have maintained an aura of gridiron success for 80 years, or since General Robert R. Neyland took The Hill in 1926.
That legacy of championship caliber seasons has been well served by Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer as his achievements over the last 15 seasons speak for themselves. His strength as a head coach is recruiting and he is widely regarded as a master of the process. He has managed to consistently put together highly rated classes, although the Class of 2006 appears, on paper, to be low by Tennessee standards.
Incidentally, that came after Fulmer & Co. signed Scout.com's No. 1 ranked Class of 2005 and following UT's first losing season in 17 years. That's a toxic cocktail where recruiting is concerned because half of your prospect base sees the program headed south while the other half is concerned they can't beat out high school All-Americans.
Tennessee landed another top five class in 2007 which could have been largely a rebound effect from the Vols good early start to the 2006 season and their sub par 2006 class. As the Vols tailed off, losing three of their final five games last season, many of the creeping doubts about the direction of the program came back into play — ergo the aforementioned wait-and-watch approach adopted by highly regarded prospects, who have a plethora of viable options.
For that reason the upcoming season is critical to both Fulmer's legacy and Tennessee's national status. It's a more difficult task than it was when he became full time head coach in 1993 when the Vols and Gators were beasts of the East and the SEC's most visible teams. Now that group has expanded include: LSU, Auburn and Georgia. South Carolina is on the rise under Steve Spurrier and Kentucky is expected to have its best team since Tim Couch was in the driver's seat and Hal Mumme was calling the shots. Arkansas is coming off an SEC West title and features the nation's best set of running backs in Felix Jones and Heisman Trophy favorite Darren McFadden. Of course Alabama, under Nick Saban's capable direction, looms huge on the horizon. Add Vanderbilt, which is competitive and capable of pulling off the occasional surprise, especially against a hated rival like UT, and November becomes a dash in the dark instead of a stroll in the park for the Vols. However behind every cloud there is a big, orange light just as there is golden opportunity behind every daunting challenge.
A solid season against a tough schedule will go a long way toward restoring the luster of Tennessee football. And in recruiting perception is reality.