Tennessee Football: Power Ranking Volunteers' 5 Best Classes of the BCS Era

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2014

Tennessee Football: Power Ranking Volunteers' 5 Best Classes of the BCS Era

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    The Tennessee Volunteers won the first ever BCS National Championship in 1998, and it's been downhill for the Vols since then.

    So, picking out the top recruiting classes in what has been a mostly forgettable era of UT football is a difficult proposition.

    But even though Tennessee has had some clunker classes that were supposed to be outstanding—looking at you, 2007 and 2009—the Vols have had plenty of talent commit in the past 16 years, even if they haven't done much with it.

    UT was an SEC Championship Game victory away from playing for another national title in 2001, but after that Phillip Fulmer's dominance abruptly ended. Then, the Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley eras happened, and here we are.

    Butch Jones has ushered in a new regime in Knoxville, one that has seen his first full Vols recruiting class surge to sixth in the nation per 247Sports. After a mediocre stretch of recruiting, it appears there will be talent again in orange and white. The question is will the Vols be able to do anything with it?

    Let's take a look at the best Tennessee classes from the BCS era.

    All recruiting information via 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.

No. 5: 2014

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    Since this is based off nothing more than potential, it's difficult to rank this year's recruiting class—which hasn't done anything yet—in the top five.

    Few know better than Tennessee fans that "potential" is a loaded word. Just look at the Vols' 2007 and 2009 classes to see that.

    But UT's stretch of poor football and disappointing recruiting has reached such a lengthy tenure now that a class carrying with it this much hope has to be on the list.

    Jones has assembled a group of 34 players that ranks sixth nationally on 247Sports, and the Vols are currently fourth on Rivals. This year's class is essentially complete, and it's loaded.

    Among those players in the star-studded class is 5-star running back Jalen Hurd, 4-star in-state receiver Josh Malone, the nation's second-ranked junior college wide receiver Von Pearson and other potential immediate contributors like Dillon Bates and Dewayne Hendrix.

    On paper, this looks like a deep and talented influx of talent that finally could get the Vols back in the mix for SEC championships. But they've got to follow it up with more good classes and follow through on all this ability.

No. 4: 1998

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    One year after the best recruiting class in Tennessee football history produced stars like Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Deon Grant, Travis Stephens, Cedrick Wilson and Cosey Coleman, 1998's haul kept the momentum going.

    It was the heyday of UT football, and the Vols would go on to win a national championship in this class' freshman season. They'd enjoy a 41-9 over their careers and, as seniors, the Vols would go 11-2 and come a win short of playing for their second national championship in four years.

    Even so, the recruiting classes around them played a bigger role in that success. From a star standpoint, there just wasn't the staying power in the '98 class as there was in those from 1997 and 2000.

    The best player in the '98 class was by far 2000 Outland Trophy winner John Henderson, who was one of the top recruits in the entire country. A couple other stalwarts like defensive end Will Overstreet and offensive tackle Will Ofenheusle enjoyed stellar UT careers.

    Role players like Omari Hand, Leonard Scott, Keyon Whiteside and Rashad Moore contributed as well, but the class of 24 really didn't produce many household names. Many of the supposed best players from the class simply faded away.

No. 3: 2002

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    This was supposed to be the class that kept Tennessee on top, but instead it never could quite get the Vols over the hump in the SEC.

    The class of 25 players assembled by Fulmer wound up ranked No. 2 by Rivals.com, and it featured future NFL players like Omar Gaither, Parys Haralson, Gibril Wilson and Jason Allen.

    But for every player who panned out, there were two who didn't. Players like top-ranked dual-threat quarterback James Banks couldn't stay out of trouble. Heath Benedict—who Rivals rated a 5-star offensive lineman—came all the way from New Jersey and barely sniffed the field.

    Others like Mondre Dickerson, Cody Douglas, Justin Harrell and Jonathan Mapu didn't contribute until later in their careers.

    When their time at UT was over, they'd led the Vols to an SEC Championship Game but accounted for only one bowl win, a 38-7 victory over Texas A&M in the 2005 Cotton Bowl. They followed up that bowl win with Tennessee's first losing season since 1988.

No. 2: 2000

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    Once all the players signed their letters of intent, it was speculated that the 2000 recruiting class would be one of Fulmer's top two recruiting classes ever assembled.

    The star power was prominent, and the players in that haul were largely responsible for the success of the 2001 season. But they, too, underachieved.

    According to "Smokey's Trail," a website that kept track of all things Tennessee, the 2000 class was ranked second by Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report and Bobby Burton's National Recruiting Advisor (a precursor to Rivals.com).

    As far as staying power, nobody has been more successful than Jason Witten, the Dallas Cowboys' All-Pro tight end who was a highly recruited defensive end from Elizabethton, Tenn., who chose UT over Virginia Tech.

    Casey Clausen was a four-year starter for the Vols at quarterback, and the players who held key roles in the last great years of Fulmer's tenure dotted the class.

    It was known at the time for its stud offensive lineman haul that included 5-star Anthony Munoz who was the son of NFL Hall of Famer Michael Munoz, as well as 5-star Jason Respert and 4-star Sean Young.

    Future NFL players like outside linebacker Kevin Burnett and cornerback Jabari Greer were in this class, as was Fulmer's future son-in-law, inside linebacker Robert Peace. Though that year's haul helped put up some stellar statistics, they never won a conference championship and had just one bowl win.

No. 1: 2004

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    The 2004 class was nowhere near as widely regarded as the ones from the previous few years, but it wound up leaving the largest legacy.

    It really was the last recruiting class in Knoxville to have a sustained successful run. They wound up 34-17 and had seasons of 10-3, 9-4 and 10-4 along with the forgettable 5-6 campaign in 2005. They wound up netting two SEC East championships and two bowl wins.

    The class ranked just 20th in the nation, according to Rivals, but it was strong at the top.

    The star of the class wound up being Rivals 3-star running back Arian Foster, who finished second all-time on UT's rushing list and has gone on to an All-Pro career with the Houston Texans.

    Erik Ainge had an up-and-down but stellar Tennessee career after winning the starting job at QB as a true freshman.

    Several more NFL players hailed from that class as well as many solid contributors.

    Jerod Mayo is one of the most fearsome linebackers in the NFL for the New England Patriots and was a star in Knoxville.

    Defensive lineman Robert Ayers was a highly-rated linebacker who has gone on to have a good NFL career with Denver. Britton Colquitt is now the Broncos punter after a great four years at UT. Offensive lineman Ramon Foster is playing in Pittsburgh and was a solid player for the Vols.

    Other players like Elix Wilson, Inky Johnson, Albert Toeaina, Xavier Mitchell, Jesse Mahelona, Ryan Karl, Demonte Bolden and Chris Brown all played a lot for the Vols.

    While the class didn't dominate the SEC, it was still the best of the BCS era for the Vols, who are more than happy to usher in a new championship system and possibly a new era of improved football.