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Tennessee football: Could the NCAA’s lack of urgency hurt the Vols in recruiting?

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The NCAA’s investigation into serious allegations against former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt and the Vols’ former brain trust in the athletic department is like a bad movie. It just won’t end.

Uncertainty? Yeah, there’s plenty of that. However, unless there’s an M. Night Shyamalan twist, Tennessee shouldn’t face any serious penalties for the haphazard cheating that UT’s athletic department accused Pruitt, his assistant, his support staff and even his wife of trying to pull off during his bumbling tenure. Still, the ongoing investigation has to be having at least somewhat of an effect because opposing recruiters will keep it among the topics of conversation when Tennessee’s program is discussed.

What if the Vols receive a postseason ban just when the expanded College Football Playoff is about to be implemented in 2024? That seems like a long shot, but you can be assured that opposing coaches are using such possible conspiracies on anyone who might not be informed as to the intricacies of the situation.

By most accounts, Pruitt was rogue and led a crew of hapless cheaters. However, as long as the investigation is still lingering, prospects have to ask themselves who they can trust. Tennessee recruiters will and have told prospects that it’s a non-issue. Opposing coaches won’t be that optimistic.

Tennessee may have well been a part of the delay. With a special season underway, the Vols wouldn’t have wanted to risk a postseason ban in 2023, even though that type of punishment still seems unlikely.

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While Tennessee was in no hurry to get a final judgment last fall, the Vols gave the NCAA a chance to toughen up. The NCAA has added investigators to its enforcement staff and pledged to run a tighter ship. That shouldn’t be difficult. The previous NCAA ship had more holes than a slice of swiss cheese.

The problem with the NCAA, historically, is two-fold. The institution is slow and inconsistent. The NCAA takes far too long to make decisions. It also has a habit of making an example of programs that have run astray. The NCAA did that to Southern California in the early 2010’s when most thought the Trojans wouldn’t face severe sanctions. Instead, the NCAA hammered Southern California and set the program back a decade.

That sort of reaction doesn’t seem likely in Tennessee’s case, but it’s also not out of the realm of possibility. The Vols seem to have a bona fide case to defend themselves. They have separated themselves from all parties involved and certainly weren’t expected to have control of Pruitt’s wife. That alone would seem to clear the Vols of a lack of institutional control. Still, the NCAA – as long as it exists – which may not be much longer, is completely unpredictable.

Tennessee has managed the specter of the NCAA hovering over it well to this point. The Vols signed a top-10 class for 2023. However, Tennessee needs to sign an even better class than it did in this latest recruiting cycle to annually compete with the best teams in the SEC. That may not be possible until the final credits of this NCAA investigation begin to roll.

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