Where Signing Day and the Super Bowl intersect: Peyton Manning and Randy Moss could have been something at Tennessee

Quick story of import here: on Sunday, Peyton Manning will go for his second Super Bowl ring. If he gets it, people think maybe he walks into the sunset (but he probably doesn’t). Regardless, it’s been an insanely productive professional career — now he’s seemed to get over the Brady/Patriots thing fully — and he’ll go down as one of the best all-time, win or not this week (I personally would have about three or four guys ahead of him, but my opinion doesn’t matter so much on these broader topics).

Now, National Signing Day is coming up this Wednesday — if you really think about it, that’s why Jack Del Rio is a defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl and not the head coach of USC right now — and it made me think back to Peyton Manning’s recruitment (it seemed ultimately to be a race between LSU, Tennessee, and Ole Miss) and his time at Tennessee. He has a ton of records there, but two things jump out: he never beat Florida (it cost him dearly most years), and the Vols actually won their lone BCS Championship the year after he left, with Tee Martin at the helm. (Tee Martin is currently the WR coach for USC, FYI.)

Now, there’s a way this all could have been different: one of the most-hyped high school football players of all-time, Mr. Randy Moss, almost went to Tennessee:

Some kid named Peyton Manning drove back to campus during a weekend away just to host the visiting hot-shot recruit. “Peyton was in Virginia, and he came back to take me to a basketball game,” Moss said. “I don’t know how long the drive was, but I know it wasn’t 15 or 30 minutes.”

Moss never forgot that moment even though he also passed on Tennessee and wouldn’t reconnect with Manning until a few years later.

“We ended up in the same draft class, at the Heisman Trophy (ceremony) together,” Moss said. “That was shocking to me. It was like, ‘Man, you tried to recruit me, now we’re at the Heisman.’ It was pretty cool.”

This is a big “what if” situation — and “what if” situations are the fuel of sports debate, honestly — because, as you probably know if you’re reading this far, Moss ultimately chose Notre Dame, then didn’t play a single down there. He ended up playing at Marshall, setting records like whoa, becoming a seven-time Pro Bowl WR in the NFL, and missing the Super Bowl a handful of times. There’s also this clip, which might be my favorite thing on YouTube.

It’s impossible to know whether Randy Moss, had he committed to Tennessee, would have ended up playing there — but it’s fun to speculate on, no? Manning to Moss in college would have been absolutely insane to watch. This is how Moss was thought of in high school, FYI:

Moss is sure of this because he has sports’ trump card: talent. Better, Moss has the kind of breathtaking athletic gifts seen once in a generation. At 6’5″, with a 39-inch vertical leap and 4.25 speed in the 40, he established himself as West Virginia’s greatest high school athlete since Jerry West. Irish coach Lou Holtz declared him one of the best high school football players he’d ever seen. Moss was twice named West Virginia’s Player of the Year—in basketball. “He does things you’ve never seen anyone else do,” says Jim Fout, Moss’s basketball coach at DuPont High in the town of Belle. Moss also ran track for a while. As a sophomore he was the state champ in the 100 and 200 meters.

Nearly every college wanted him, troubled or not. During Moss’s trial for the stomping incident, Kanawha County prosecutor Bill Forbes received a half-dozen calls from football coaches around the country assuring him they could make Moss a better citizen if he was released to their care. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden ultimately got Moss and quickly understood his colleagues’ hunger. Early in the fall of 1995, during an impromptu late-night footrace among the Seminoles’ fastest players, Moss came in second. When he went through practice the following spring as a redshirt freshman, the defense couldn’t stop him from scoring. “He was as good as Deion Sanders,” Bowden says. “Deion’s my measuring stick for athletic ability, and this kid was just a bigger Deion.”

If you’re wondering, the highest-ranked WR for this class (2014) signed with Florida State, but the No. 2 guy — Malachi Dupre, who looks like Russell Westbrook with the specs — hasn’t announced yet, and is apparently down to Alabama, LSU, UCLA, and FSU (maybe Ole Miss too). He’s 6-4, 175. Moss 2.0? Probably not, but you never know.

Tennessee, who’s been on hard times since about ’07 it seems, currently has the No. 4 class by some measure.

Ted Bauer