We live in different worlds

Marvin Westwestwords

Good championship game, Alabama over Georgia, knock-down-and-drag-out intensity, end of the Bulldogs’ winning streak. Bragging will drop off.

Good break for the Southeastern Conference, the playoff selection committee got it right. Hate to admit it but the Crimson Tide emerged as one of the better teams in the country. It was also lucky. Survival at Auburn was mostly the Tigers’ fault.

Haunting experience while watching the Saturday telecast – kept hearing Hank Williams in the back of my mind, singing “We live in two different worlds … that’s why we’re so far apart.”

Tennessee is, indeed, in another football world, maybe years from title time, well below the victorious Tide as we learned in the second half at Tuscaloosa.

That should restore your attention. You might even find it alarming. I thought it was scary.

Be advised that Tennessee won’t catch Alabama or Georgia by standing still. The next version of Volunteers may not be competitive with newcomers Texas and Oklahoma or talented LSU or surprising Missouri. Nico is certainly promising but he may not be a magician.

Maybe we’ll find out a bit more in the Citrus Bowl, against Iowa, depending on who plays and who ducks out.

To fit in the higher SEC level, the national scene, the Volunteers must suddenly improve recruiting and get better in a hurry at developing young talent.

Those are the cold, hard facts in the 2024 outlook. Resident experts are already predicting another 8-4 record. You’ll get to decide whether the middle third in league standings is good enough.

Josh Heupel is 14-10 against SEC foes in his three seasons at Tennessee. A surprising segment of that success can be traced directly to leftover Volunteers from the Jeremy Pruitt era or veteran talent imported through the transfer portal.

Last season’s Vols, who went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, featured 18 of 22 starters who either played for Pruitt or were signed by him. All five picked in the NFL draft came before Heupel.

Of course, they became Heupel players. He changed the culture. His offensive scheme made a major difference. In some cases, he shaped square pegs to fit into round holes.

This team got limited help from Heupel recruits. Young receivers, battlefield promotions, contributed a few catches. Young linebacker Arion Carter became a regular.

Alas, top talents were tied to the previous administration: center Cooper Mays, guards Javontez Spraggins and Ollie Lane, tight end Jacob Warren, running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small and wide receiver Ramel Keyton.

Other Pruitt players are defensive tackle Omari Thomas, defensive ends Tyler Baron and Roman Harrison, linebacker Aaron Beasley, cornerback Doneiko Slaughter, nickelback Tamarion McDonald and safety Jaylen McCollough.

We have seen hints of what happens when coaches win with previous coaches’ recruits.

At Central Florida, Heupel went 22-4 in his first two seasons while relying largely on players who were signed by former coach Scott Frost. That inheritance included those who had gone 13-0 in 2017 with the Knights.

Heupel had a 6-4 record in his third season. There were circumstances.

The Tennessee scene was almost an opposite. Pruitt’s final team went 3-7. A mass exodus followed. Fortunately, some talent stayed and improved. Alas, it is about to run out.

Something similar happened to Bill Battle at Tennessee (1970-76). His coaching record was much better with Doug Dickey recruits than his own.

Heupel and his staff have a favorable reputation for developing players. Quarterback Hendon Hooker was exhibit 1-A. He transferred to Tennessee just before Pruitt was dismissed. Hendon became SEC offensive player of the year.

Jalin Hyatt is exhibit 1-B. He was a Vol before Heupel arrived. When he grew up, he became the Biletnikoff Award winner.

Offensive tackle Darnell Wright was inherited. He became a millionaire as the No. 10 pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

It appears developing younger players takes longer. We eagerly await the arrival of Heupel recruits for the offensive line and secondary. They may be needed in 2024.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.


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