I don’t usually watch these weekly College Football Playoff rankings reveal shows. In fact, I can’t think of anything in sports so scrutinized and yet so utterly meaningless.
They are fodder for advertising revenue each November. Nothing more.
Give me a list of teams each week if you must. I’ll look at it, sure. But it’s a waste of time to spend an hour debating hypothetical decisions that aren’t due for weeks. Everyone knows the reasoning can – and will – change entirely before the only set of rankings that matter. Until then? Seriously, who cares? I’ve said it for years.
Tuesday night, though, I’ll admit that I observed a side to the silliness that I hadn’t before.
It was Tennessee football‘s side.
The side of a proud program whose long-awaited moment has finally arrived and was being enjoyed. The side of a fanbase that has had to sit there for many years watching – or not watching, more likely – while rivals like Alabama and Georgia get loved on and fawned over the way Tennessee was being loved on and fawned over in this instance.
Tuesday’s ESPN production was a gigantic recruiting commercial for the unbeaten Vols. You had all kinds of orange-clad highlights of checkerboard touchdowns. You had all the analysts talking up Tennessee’s program extensively. You had Josh Heupel appearing and being lobbed a series of questions that were varying takes on, “You and your team are awesome, Josh, can you talk about that?”
Above all, though, you had this: Tennessee is the No. 1 team in college football right now.
Can’t call that meaningless.
Certainly not on Rocky Top. Not when the Vols hadn’t even appeared in the playoff rankings at all since 2016 (!), when they finished No. 21.
Not when the worst problem facing Tennessee football for years – much like Nebraska – has been the absence of national recognition for a program that must recruit nationally to succeed.
It’s not that recruits from coast to coast were thinking poorly of the Vols these past dozen years. They mostly weren’t thinking about them at all.
If Heupel accomplishes nothing else this season, he’ll have changed that. He has put Tennessee football back on the national map, something that no Vols coach since Phillip Fulmer has been able to do and something every Vols coach simply must do if he wants to win big without a ton of elite high-school talent in his backyard.
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Saturday’s game at Georgia – whose coach Kirby Smart does have such a recruiting advantage in his state – looms as the toughest threat yet to Tennessee’s spectacular run. If the Vols get by the reigning champs in Athens, there will be no opponent left to fear the rest of the way.
But even if the Vols lose Saturday, it wouldn’t be a disaster. They’ll still have a better-than-average chance to reach the playoff by winning out to finish 11-1.
Tuesday’s rankings reveal suggested as much. It was also further proof that Tennessee’s stunning revival – thus far – is the story of this college football season. Helps that the Vols are finding a sport weary of the same teams at the top year after year. Look at Tuesday night’s familiar top six: Ohio State (2), Georgia (3), Clemson (4), Michigan (5), Alabama (6) … and then Tennessee (1), the only fresh face of the bunch.
Which team do you think the rest of the country is going to support more in the coming weeks? Which will get the benefit of the doubt from a committee, too?
“We’ve tried to enjoy the journey and take moments of pause to reflect and enjoy what our players have built here,” Heupel said on the playoff show. “They’ve built this. Three years ago, it didn’t look like this.”
Sure didn’t, Josh.
I’d venture to say that Tennessee is starting to become the “it” program in college football. Such a distinction can be fleeting, but it can also have teeth on the recruiting trail. That’s where the Vols’ No. 12 national 2023 class ranking (per 247 Sports), while not terrible, still lags behind Alabama (No. 1) and Georgia (No. 2).
That could be changing quickly, without so much as a huddle.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
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