Rising Tide Threatens UT

Alabama head coach Nick Saban sent a strong message with a first-year signing class rated No. 1 in the nation and featuring three of the top five football prospects from the Volunteer State.

Of course, the first salvo Saban fired over the bow of the Vol Navy came on the third Saturday in October last season when the Crimson Tide crushed Tennessee to the tune of 41-17.

Add it up and it is clear Saban came to Tuscaloosa with the objective of restoring Alabama to its former national prominence while ending Tennessee's dominance of the Tide both on the field and the recruiting trail during the 15-year Phillip Fulmer era.

Saint Nick isn't one of the Bear's boys nor can he sign the numbers Coach Bryant could in his era. But he is following a path the Bear blazed during the glorious 70's when the Tide consistently signed the best prospects in Alabama and scraped off the cream of the crop in Tennessee.

The strategy deprived the Vols of their state's precious natural resources and it gave the Tide a very strong instate base from which to build. It also forced UT to range much further for prospects which requires a greater investment of time and energy while decreasing the odds of success.

Something similar took place in the late 90s when a big Bama booster with more dollars than sense bought the Bluff City's best ball players and shipped them south to Tuscaloosa. This half-baked scheme was eventually exposed, head coach Mike Dubose was deposed and NCAA penalties were imposed.

The list of witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the infractions is longer than roll call at an American Idol audition. The offenses were so overt as to be an affront to even the most ardent Alabama rooter. Stories of dirty money in greasy paper sacks handed off at clandestine meetings. At least one blue chip lineman who signed with the Tide never knew he had even been sold until it was disclosed by NCAA investigators. It was a toxic mix of slush funds, betrayals and deceit; the seamy underside of big-time college football.

One would think the shame and embarrassment this ugly incident caused UA would have been the focus of Bama Nation's outrage. Curiously, you'd be wrong. Instead of turning crimson over the atrocities committed in the name of Alabama football, most Tide faithful got upset these dirty deeds were exposed.

Coach Fulmer was already public enemy No. 1 in Alabama because of the edge Tennessee had gained in the storied SEC series under his direction. Although there were other coaches within the conference that had cooperated with the NCAA investigation of Alabama Fulmer got most of the blame and the mere mention of his name still enflames Crimson emotions.

If this wasn't understood by Saban before he signed his record deal with Alabama, it didn't take long for him to get the message once he began to mingle with the masses.

One can only guess how many times Saban heard — "Whatever you do coach just beat Tennessee" — on his travels through the Heart of Dixie. And even though that's not his top priority it is a perquisite to achieving his objective. It's also a great gauge for how close he is to the ultimate prize i.e. Bama's first national title since 1992, which was the season before Fulmer became head coach on The Hill.

As Saban's second full recruiting campaign is underway it's clear he will continue to challenge the Vols for the best high school talent in Tennessee. Likewise Fulmer is aiming at some of Alabama's elite athletes.

Here are some of the battle shaping up between UT and Bama:

AUSTIN LONG, 6-6, 270 offensive tackle from Briarcrest Christian Schools in Memphis. The Vols offered Long a scholarship on Sunday. He already has an offer from Alabama. "I just left Tennessee's Junior Day, and coach [Phillip] Fulmer offered me," Long told Scout.com's Andrew Bone. "I was talking to coach Fulmer when we were leaving and walking to the car. That's when he offered me. I was excited about the offer. I liked it. I told him thanks a lot, and I would have to talk to my parents. I told him I was not going to commit early. I wanted to make sure I make the best decision for me." The four-star prospect also has offers from Florida, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Georgia.

KENDALL KELLY, 6-3, 210, wide receiver from Gadsden City High School. This four-star athlete has 4.5 speed and posted a solid junior season in which he posted 34 receptions for 595 yards, rushed 17 times for 189 yards and scored nine touchdowns to earn ASWA Honorable Mention 6A. In addition to Alabama and Tennessee, Kelly has offers from Auburn, Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina. He made an unofficial visit to Tuscaloosa for the LSU game, and has attended Junior Day at Auburn.

ALEX BULLARD, 6-3, 270-pound, offensive lineman of Brentwood Academy has already picked up an offer from Alabama as well as from Auburn, Duke, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Notre Dame and Tennessee are expected to be on hand to evaluate him this spring. A very good technician with outstanding quickness and excellent upside from a program that has produced many D-I prospects over the years, including running back Chris Jordan who signed with Alabama last month.

WILL JACKSON, 6-4, 280-pound offensive guard of Knoxville Faragut High School is another of the prized offensive lineman in the Class of 2009 from the state of Tennessee. A mobile big man with 5.1 speed he has the ability and tenacity to get out on the second and third level. As a junior, Jackson earned First-Team All-State, All-County, All-Region, All-City and All-East Tennessee honors. He was also named as the top preseason offensive lineman by the Knoxville News Sentinel. Jackson is one of the best O-line prospects from Knoxville in the last decade. Tennessee and Alabama are both on his favorites list as are Auburn, Clemson, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and West Virginia. The latter three have offered and it only appears to be a matter of time before UT and Bama follow suit.

ANTHONY ORR, 6-4, 264, D-lineman, Sparkman High School in Harvest, Ala. An agile athlete who plays defensive end but projects as a defensive tackle where his big frame and 4.8 speed could make him a difference maker at a position of need. Alabama and Auburn have already tendered offers. Tennessee and Mississippi State are also his favorites list. Had a standout showing at the Scout.com Southeast Elite combine held Jan. 20 in Mobile.

WILLIAM MING, 6-4, 250, tight end/defensive end of Athens High School in Alabama is a rising star in the state. He recorded 67 tackles as a junior including 17 for loss with five sacks and a fumble recovery. Played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and could become a productive tight end. A 4.0 student he's known for his leadership and work ethic. He was offered by Alabama on Feb. 5 which was national signing day. He also has offers from Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Oklahoma and Vanderbilt.

ERIC GORDON, 5-11, 186, defensive back/wide receiver from Hillsboro Comp High School in Nashville is one of the most sought after prospects in Tennessee. Flash Gordon runs a 4.4 flat and has the skills to become a shutdown corner or big-play receiver. As a junior he caught 44 passes for 816 yards and 10 touchdowns. On defense he amassed 77 tackles with three interceptions two of which he returned for TDs. He also returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns. Has offers from Alabama, Mississippi State, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Others will follow.

There are other prospects within the borders of Alabama and Tennessee that are potential targets for the state schools not to mention many more in border states. There's a good chance Saban and Fulmer cross paths and cross swords often over the next year.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories