College football recruiting has become one of the most covered aspects of the sport. Nowhere is that more true than in the Southeastern Conference.
Ranking high school kids based on talent and potential is always an incredibly daunting task. Waiting to rank those classes until years after those recruits have reached their potential (or not), however, is much easier.
Over the next few slides you will see Tennessee's top signing classes over the last 30-plus years.
Several factors were taken into account for these rankings. The class ranking at the time the recruits signed, the program's success while those players were on the team, and the NFL talent produced from the class.
Here is the Vols' best of the best signing classes since 1980.
The 2007 class falls under that untapped potential category for more reasons than one. Sure, members of this class played a key role in one SEC East title season, but this class saw three different head coaches and a losing season.
Eric Berry has been by far the most successful member of the '07 class. Thirteen members of this 32-member class either didn't qualify, were released from their scholarships or transferred.
When the class signed, there was all sorts of promise. It finished as one of the most disappointing signing classes in program history.
Gerald Riggs Jr.
With future NFL players like Jason Allen, Omar Gaither, Parys Haralson and Gibril Wilson, Tennessee's 2002 signing class was one of the more highly touted classes in the nation.
Players from this class played in one SEC Championship Game and had just one bowl win. This class was also a part of the Vols' first losing season ('05) since 1988.
Tennessee's 2000 class was another highly touted, enormous class. With the Vols coming out of the highly successful 1990s, the 29 players in this class were expected to be a huge part of continuing Tennessee's winning tradition.
Ultimately, this class never won a conference championship and won just one bowl game. The quarterback signed in this class ended up as one of the Vols most prolific passers, however. Casey Clausen led fellow '00 signees Jason Witten and Mark Jones through one of the more offensively gifted eras in recent UT history.
The 2004 class didn't have all the accolades of previous classes, but the players signed from this class had a remarkable impact on Tennessee football.
Quarterback Erik Ainge became one of the top passers in Tennessee history. After tearing up the SEC, Jerrod Mayo is one of the most feared linebackers in the NFL. Arian Foster is one of the top running backs in the NFL as well.
This class helped lead the Vols to two SEC East championships and two bowl wins.
Shaun Ellis, Darwin Walker, Eric Westmoreland, Raynoch Thompson and Tee Martin were all members of this class. Those names are hallowed in Knoxville as the core group of players that landed Tennessee its first consensus national championship since 1951.
Ellis is still wreaking havoc on opposing offenses in the NFL, and Tee Martin is considered one of the top assistant coaches in the SEC (Kentucky).
This class experienced two bowl wins, two SEC titles and the first-ever BCS National Championship.
One of the classes that really set the stage for Tennessee's decade of success in the '90s was this group led by all-everything quarterback Heath Shuler.
With a combined 47 years of NFL experience from this class, it has to be one of the best ever at UT. Players like Jason Laymon, Aaron Hayden, Jeff Smith and James "Little Man" Stewart are still respected as some of the best to ever play at Tennessee.
This class won two bowl games and shared an SEC East title with Florida in 1993.
Perhaps the signing class of '91 would not have been in position to take the Vols program to the next level if not for the '87 class.
Quarterback Andy Kelly and wide receiver Anthony Morgan are notables from this class, as is Tom Myslinki, Daryl Hardy and Jeremy Lincoln. Morgan, Myslinski, Hardy and Lincoln combined for 30 years in the NFL. Kelly is widely considered the greatest quarterback in the history of the Arena Football League.
Most importantly, this was one of the most successful Vols signing classes on the field. It was a part of three bowl wins and registered back-to-back SEC championships in 1989 and '90.
Four years before Al Wilson became the heart and soul of Tennessee's 1998 national title run, he was one of the top high school prospects in the country.
A class that included such Vols royalty as Chad Clifton, Leonard Little and Peerless Price was the senior class that experienced the Vols national title in 1998.
This class was a part of three bowl wins, two SEC titles and, of course, the 1998 BCS title.
The 1994 class was revered because it boasted two of the top quarterback prospects in the country. When future NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning became the choice early in the 1994 season, the second of that duo, Brandon Stewart, transferred.
This class didn't feature a ton of stars. Between Marcus Nash, Terry Fair, Jonathan Brown and, of course, Manning there's plenty of starpower to land this group among the top two ever at Tennessee.
The '94 signing class was a part of three bowl wins and an SEC title.
The best way to begin this slide is with a list of names.
- Deon Grant
- Travis Henry
- Jamal Lewis
- Travis Stephens
- Andre Lott
- Cedrick Wilson
- Cosey Coleman
- David Martin
Recognize any or all of those names? One is the all-time leading rusher in Tennessee history (Henry). Another (Grant) is currently in his 12th year in the NFL. Lewis was one of the NFL's leading rushers for nearly half a decade.
There is over 70 years of NFL experience from this signing class.
All of these players were integral pieces of the Vols' championship run in '98. Members of this class won two SEC titles and one national championship.