The Existential Problem Facing Auburn and Tennessee

The Auburn and Tennessee football programs have just completed another coaching search and staff hire. It’s the why, not the who, that is important. The why is an existential problem for both.

The Auburn Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers are two of the proudest programs and fanbases in college football, and have been for a century. Auburn boasts an all-time record of 780–443–47 (.633) with two National Championships. Tennessee claims a record of 848–395–53 (.675) and six National Titles (though, only two are recognized independently).

Both, however, have had to replace coaches recently, and are trending downward. The reason for that trend is an existential threat to their traditional success that doesn’t seem to be waning any time soon. And that threat isn’t even in conference.

The recent hires of Brian Harsin at Auburn and Josh Heupel at Tennessee have raised some eyebrows. Not so much that new coaches were wanted, but that both programs went way outside of the SEC and got two dudes known for break-neck offense. More of a departure from form for Tennessee than Auburn, but still. To be sure, both coaches have had success, but both are a departure from form or type.

There are many questions as to whether either will “be the guy”, and satiate championship dreams on The Plains or on Ol’ Rocky Top. But those questions wilt in comparison to the larger question of how did they get here? How did these two programs, who have won for a really, really long time get to a place where they hired dudes from Boise St and UCF (not that there is anything wrong with that)?

Now, many would reflexively answer Nick Saban. And, truly, that dude is the answer for a lot of questions about how things have changed in the college football landscape since 2007. Saban has been so successful, and ahem, game-changing, that he very well could be the Thanos of all answers. He certainly treats college football like Thanos would.

But I would argue something different. In fact, I do argue something different. For this scribe, the simple answer: The rise of Clemson University.

In short, were it not for Clemson’s prodigious winning and recruiting under Head Coach Dabo Swinney since 2008, I believe Auburn and Tennessee football would still be conference contenders, and probably playoff contenders, in spite of what Nick Saban has done in Tuscaloosa since 2007.

And I want to get specific here. I contend that there is a direct correlation between Dabo Swinney and Clemson recruiting the metro Atlanta area as well as they have for a decade and the retrograde decomposition of the Auburn and Tennessee fortunes.

Since 2014, Clemson has recruited no less than 14 dudes from the metro Atlanta area with a recruiting ranking of 94 or better coming out of high school. That all began with a Mr. Deshaun Watson in 2014. Eight of those dudes were 5-star players, meaning recruiting services project them as possible NFL first round draft picks.

My contention is that this emergence created a down draft for Auburn and Tennessee recruiting that they haven’t been able to escape.

Take Auburn. The last time they won an SEC Championship, and National Championship, was 2010. They don’t win anything without Cam Newton that year. Atlanta boy. In fact, look at some of their best players from the last five years: Derrick Brown, Carl Lawson, Antwuan Jackson, Brodarious Hamm, Owen Pappoe, Big Kat Bryant, Smoke Monday. This doesn’t include Tank Bigsby (Georgia boy). All from metro Atlanta. Can you imagine if they had half of those Clemson kids, too?

The Tennessee Vols situation is even more striking. They haven’t won anything since 1998. That team was littered with Atlanta athletes. Tennessee football hasn’t been nearly as effective recruiting Georgia since Mark Richt got to Athens, and you see the trend. But they still got some players. Then comes Saban, Swinney, and Kirby Smart.

At one time, The Vols could get anybody they wanted from Atlanta, Ga. Jamal Lewis, anyone? Now, they’re thankful to get five 3-star athletes in a class from there. In fact, not only has Clemson changed that arch, the Tigers have gone into Knoxville and taken Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. Two NFL players from Knoxville, TN. Saban didn’t do that. Swinney did. Brutal.

The point here is that unless and until the Auburn Tigers or Tennessee football can recruit Atlanta better than Clemson can, they will be where they are now.

Where are they now? Hoping to finish (6-6) in 2021, and praying that this new coach can improve upon that significantly in the near future. That is not where these programs expect to be.

And while Saban at Alabama, and to a lesser extent Smart at Georgia, has had something to do with this regression at Auburn and Tennessee, it is Clemson and Swinney who have been stealing their lunch, leaving both proud fanbases hungry for wins and thirsty championships.

I know both of those teams are tired of losing to Bama and Georgia. But Clemson is the one robbing them blind of the weapons they need to have a chance in those games. As the kids say, period.