Sometimes it’s hard to place a value on a bowl game victory. Other than nostalgia and team pride, what are the teams playing for? The Orange Bowl between Tennessee football and the Clemson Tigers is an exception.
Take pride and shove it aside for a moment. Tennessee and Clemson are playing for a recruiting foothold in each other’s home turf. Until recently, the Tigers have been winning that battle.
When the Vols were wayward, they lost top receiver prospects like Tee Higgins from Oak Ridge High School and Amari Rodgers from Catholic High School. Both are still playing in the NFL, and both would have been Vols had it not been for questionable coaching at Tennessee. Rodgers’ father was former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin.
It’s worth noting that Clemson doesn’t have a current signee or commitment in the 2023 class from East Tennessee and hasn’t had quantifiable success other than Bryn Tucker, who signed with Clemson out of Catholic in 2020.
There’s a different feel around Knoxville, and UT coach Josh Heupel has obviously gotten some traction in keeping up-close, in-state prospects close to home.
Clemson has proven ready for the Vols to stumble. That’s how they nabbed some of those aforementioned prospects. No matter how much you love Tennessee football, it would have been tough to dispel Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney had they come calling while the Vols had a pair of incompetent coaches like Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt back-to-back.
Let’s face it. Losing a prospect from your hometown is not only embarrassing; it’s a really bad sign. It seems the Vols are past that with Clemson. Sure, there might be a player who moves into the area who has a particular tie to a school, but losing top prospects with no ties to Clemson was a red flag the size of Neyland Stadium’s jumbotron.
We haven’t even mentioned Trevor Lawrence, who played at Clemson, was the No. 1 selection in the 2021 NFL Draft and was dying to play for the Vols if not for the defunct coaching issues. Tennessee had every chance and no chance to land Lawrence. He loved the Vols and was born in Knoxville but understandably had concerns about the direction of the program. Think he would have signed on to play for Heupel? I’m guessing so.
The Orange Bowl is a chance for Tennessee football to make a statement in recruiting. It’s a chance to say that it is the up-and-coming program in recruiting and that players have no need to leave the Knoxville area to find football fortunes anywhere else.
Things change quickly. Tennessee has a coach that cares about his players with a plan to improve. That’s the void that Swinney filled before Heupel arrived. There’s no void now, and with a win against Clemson, the Vols can provide a clear sign that things have changed when it comes to recruiting in East Tennessee – and beyond.
Let’s also not forget just how important the Carolinas have been to Tennessee’s recruiting legacy. While in-state recruiting has improved, the Vols have been at their best when they’ve recruited well in North and South Carolina. So has Clemson. The Orange Bowl is a chance for the Vols to show how the two programs are trending in different directions (even if that’s too simplistic).
Beating Clemson can provide some good recruiting fodder for Tennessee football in the Carolinas. Of course, there is already plenty of competition there, from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. However, the Vols have a prime-time window to sway prospects when decision time comes.
UT already has two prospects signed from North Carolina: four-star receiver Nathan Leacock from Raleigh, who is currently enrolled, and four-star defensive lineman Daevin Hobbs from Concord. Think the Vols would like to add to that total in the coming years? Sure, the Vols recruit nationwide, but the Carolinas can take Tennessee football to another level. That means there’s plenty at stake in the Orange Bowl on Friday.