A Tennessee Vols fan stretches out on a beach recliner, takes a sip from his favorite drink and relaxes to the rhythmic sound of the waves. Life is good.
In fact, it’s so good that anything seems possible. A football fantasy comes to mind – a Manning-size football fantasy.
“What if Arch Manning signed with the Vols?” he wonders.
Manning is preparing for his junior season at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. He’s the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports. But he’s already overshadowing the top 2022 recruits.
Apparently, he’s that good. And, of course, there’s the name.
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The Mannings are the first family of SEC football. They’re also the closest you can come to a sure thing as a quarterback. Archie Manning, Arch’s grandfather, became an Ole Miss legend in the late 1960s. Arch’s uncle Peyton, who stayed for four seasons at Tennessee, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. Arch’s other uncle, Eli, starred at Ole Miss and later led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories.
So, Arch will have his pick of every big-time football school in the country. And, unless you are experiencing a beach fantasy, you know Tennessee no longer qualifies as a big-time football school. The Vols have had eight losing seasons in the past 13 years and a procession of mediocre coaches – the latest of whom, Jeremy Pruitt, was fired after a 3-7 season in 2020.
Despite UT’s recent failures, I wouldn’t categorize its chances of signing Arch as hopeless. Unlikely, maybe, but not hopeless.
Tennessee is in the right conference. Not only did Archie, Peyton and Eli play in the SEC, Arch’s father, Cooper, would have, too, if a medical condition hadn’t ended a promising career as an Ole Miss wide receiver.
Arch could choose to expand the family brand outside the conference, but I would bet against it. Why go somewhere else when the SEC is the best conference – and offers the best proving ground for the NFL?
Never mind Tennessee’s struggles, the Manning family is comfortable here. Peyton loved going to college in Knoxville. It’s his school and he treats it accordingly. Archie also has become a Tennessee fan.
I remember talking to Peyton during the 2007 Super Bowl week when he brought up what a great job Bruce Pearl was doing as Tennessee’s basketball coach. A couple of weeks ago while interviewing Archie about the 25th anniversary of his football camp, he mentioned how proud he was of Tennessee’s baseball success under coach Tony Vitello.
Something else in Tennessee’s favor: Josh Heupel strikes me as the Mannings’ kind of coach. He’s a low-key guy who won’t try to dazzle you with rhetoric, light up Twitter on a regular basis, or wow you with his dance moves in a locker room victory celebration.
You don’t win over the Mannings that way. You do it by demonstrating your offensive knowledge on a white board.
David Cutcliffe did that with both Peyton and Eli. He was Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee, and Eli’s coach at Ole Miss.
Cutcliffe, who now coaches Duke, has never been a great self-promoter. He’s a low-key personality who’s confident enough in his ability that he doesn’t feel compelled to spread the word through media sources.
The Mannings were comfortable with Cutcliffe. They might be comfortable with Heupel, too.
Time also is in UT’s favor. If Arch were in the 2022 signing class, the Vols wouldn’t have a chance. However, by the time Arch is ready to choose a college, Heupel will have fielded two teams at Tennessee.
If the Vols can show enough progress – if Heupel’s offense comes shining through – Arch Manning could be looking at a much different Tennessee football program than the one Pruitt left in ruins.