HOOVER, Ala. – There’s a different air about Tennessee this year, a bit of a swagger, if you will. Order of finish predictions for SEC media here aren’t due in until Thursday but, between the line of questioning being directed toward the Vols on Tuesday and the actual look and feel of their team, the SEC East favorite tag is going to be colored Big Orange.
And there’s a lot on display to validate that distinction. Tennessee certainly checks all the boxes.
- Proven quarterback: Joshua Dobbs, check.
- Proven runners: Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, check.
- Play-making wideouts: Josh Malone and Josh Smith, check.
- Experienced offensive line: four of five returning starters, check.
- Standouts on the defensive line, at linebacker, at defensive back: Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Mabin, Cameron Sutton, check, check, check.
All those are known commodities. Coach Butch Jones and his staff have been recruiting hard and recruiting well the last few years. They have locked down what graded out as Top 5 classes the last two.
What’s unknown is how the Vols will handle this new role. While Tennessee certainly has played it before many times in its proud football history, it has been a while. The Vols kind of lost their footing at the top of the mountain after the Phil Fulmer tenure was ended in 2008, so they haven’t had to battle much from this lofty position until now.
Here in mid-July at least, they like the view from up on high.
“It’s like I told our coaching staff when we broke for summer vacation – you need to enjoy this,” said Jones, addressing reporters at SEC Football Media Days for the fourth time. “You know, when we took over this football program, I think everyone understands what was in place. And so, you know, it’s a tribute to them, it’s a tribute to our staff. It’s a tribute to our players.”
The last time the Vols represented the East in the SEC championship game was 2007, when they lost to eventual national championship. That was nine years ago, when most of the current players were in middle school.
But all of them came to Rocky Top with idea of being in this situation, and they vow to not be overwhelmed by it.
“It is no challenge at all,” said Dobbs, a senior from Alpharetta, Ga. “We have the highest expectations for ourselves. We hold ourselves to high standard when we perform on the field, when we practice, and when we work out. We look at the little details and the things you might not want to do and we do those things in order to become great. We hold the highest standards of ourselves to be great this upcoming season each and every time we step on the field. Guys are realizing that this is going to be an exciting year and we will be ready to compete once September 1st comes.”
That’s when the Vols open the season against Appalachian State. But that’s not the game that is going to determine how this season goes.
That one comes, as always, in late September. The Vols play host to Florida — a team they’ve lost to 11 years in a row — on Sept. 24th at Neyland Stadium. As ever, that game more than any other dictates how Tennessee’s season goes.
Obviously they have not had a lot of great seasons of late. Everybody seems to believe this one will be.
“To me, I love it,” Jones said. “That’s what you work for. You want high expectations. You want high standards. I remember standing up here at the podium three short years ago, and the room was half filled and nobody was talking about Tennessee football. So that’s why you coach, that’s why you play, to be in a program like the University of Tennessee where everybody is talking about you. That’s what you work for.
“Now it’s what you do with that opportunity.”