The recruitment of quarterback Gunner Kiel shouldn't go unnoticed by Tennessee football fans.
Don't get the wrong idea. The second-ranked quarterback in this recruiting class isn't considering the Vols. The impact is more subtle than that.
As of Monday afternoon, Kiel was trying to decide between three schools: Notre Dame, LSU and — hold onto your helmet — Vanderbilt.
LSU is the No. 1 team in the nation, so it's a fashionable choice. Notre Dame has a bit of football history behind it, and Kiehl is from Columbus, Ind. But Vanderbilt?
There are junior colleges with more football tradition than Vanderbilt. The Commodores' stadium isn't half the size of the elite SEC programs' and on any given Saturday is subject to a takeover by opposing fans. But Vanderbilt somehow made Kiel's shortlist.
Even in the unpredictable realm of recruiting, this qualifies as the strangest of twists. And it's apt to produce mixed reviews from those who cast their allegiance with the state's more recognizable program.
The recent decline of UT football understandably raises fan concerns about recruiting. A school that relies so heavily on national recruiting seemingly would benefit from winning at the highest level or at least to the extent that it could slip into a bowl game within an easy day's drive of its campus.
However, if Vanderbilt can get so much as a return phone call from a prominent quarterback recruit, that's a noteworthy sign UT's 5-7 record and recent history of mediocrity won't sabotage its recruiting.
The Vols have had three head coaches and two losing records in the last four seasons. They have been subjected to an NCAA investigation. They have endured as much turmoil as any BCS program in the country that didn't have a former coach accused of molesting children.
Yet they're working on another top-20 recruiting class. That tells you something about the program's appeal. In fact, I'm convinced that if UT athletic director Dave Hart announced the Vols would no longer field a football team, at least a three-star recruit still would commit to the Vols within a week.
The other side of this recruiting topic is less en
couraging for UT. If this were just about Kiel, you could characterize it as an aberration. But ESPN ranks Vanderbilt's current list of commitments as No. 22 nationally, just six places below UT and ahead of the likes of Virginia Tech and Oregon.
These are merely commitments, not signees. So you might assume some of the Commodores' 20 commitments will come to their senses between now and signing date and opt for a program with a college-size stadium and a fan base that wouldn't be hard-pressed to fill Thompson-Boling Arena,
But what if the commitments hold up? What if Vanderbilt signs a top-25 class? Then, you really would have to wonder about James Franklin.
Before the 2011 season if you asked hard-core college football fans "Who's James Franklin?" they would have been more likely to answer the "Missouri quarterback" than the "Vanderbilt coach."
It's impressive enough that in his first year as a head coach, Franklin led Vanderbilt to a bowl game. He's 1-for-1 in bowls at a school that's about to play in only its second bowl since 1982. But even before Franklin won his first game, he was winning over recruits. Since then, the Commodores have won six games, two more than they did the last two seasons combined.
They have proved — for at least one season — you can recruit effectively without winning at a high level. That should be reassuring for a UT program that has won only six more games than it has lost in the last seven seasons.
It should be less assuring for the Vols if it means Vanderbilt has become a recruiting threat.