Expectations are the type of thing you talk about at preseason media days.
Coaches and players spout off familiar platitudes –– reminders that their team has been “working hard” or, from the more colorful mouths, “busting their tails.” There are assertions of eagerness and hunger, reverberations about the way a team has matured or how it will improve upon its accomplishments. Et cetera, et cetera.
At SEC Media Days back in mid-July, Tennessee coach Butch Jones offered a recitation of customary truisms about the Volunteers.
“We look forward to the many challenges that 2015 brings,” he said in his opening statement from a Hoover, Ala. podium.
He spoke of readiness and momentum and –– giving way to another all-too-vague sports quotation archetype –– playing “Tennessee football.”
While typical, Jones’ words in July fell against a different backdrop than they did in years prior. It was 2015. The third-year coach had upperclassmen on his roster that he, himself, had recruited. His underclassmen, meanwhile, belonged to top-5 recruiting classes –– something Jones managed to bring to Knoxville, Tenn. in back-to-back years. The nation was buying into the trajectory of the Volunteers.
There were Jones’ recruiting exploits, the fact that he had steered his team to a 4-1 finish over the final five games of 2014 — with a bowl win to boot — and then there was what looked to be an open SEC East.
UGA had question marks at quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. Florida was in flux, with Jim McElwain new to campus and tasked with picking up the pieces Will Muschamp had left scattered. And neither Missouri nor South Carolina had lofty expectations, given roster turnover and a relative lack of experience.
Indeed, it was Jones’ Volunteers who, perhaps, had the highest ceiling ahead of the 2015 season.
But it’s no longer mid-July and there’s no more speculation to be had about Tennessee’s 2015 season. They’re 8-4 and headed for the Outback Bowl.
Nothing about four losses is alarming for Jones and Tennessee. What happened in Rocky Top this season was neither calamitous nor confounding. Tampa, Fla. on New Year’s Day isn’t a bad destination for the Volunteers. Northwestern isn’t even all that bad of a draw as a bowl opponent. There’s a lot to Volunteers fans can be encouraged by.
Take, for example, the team’s 21-point comeback win over UGA in mid-October. Or its renewed offensive prowess –– scoring over 50 points in four games.
Tennessee’s losses even offered glimmers of promise. Two of its losses came against College Football Playoff finalists –– Alabama and Oklahoma. Another was had at the hands of SEC runner-up Florida, who managed to hold on to a 28-27 lead when the Vols missed a last-second field goal attempt. The combined deficit of all four Tennessee losses was a mere 17 points and the bout with the Sooners went to double overtime.
An objective look back at Tennessee’s 2015 season would reveal that the Vols really weren’t all that far off. Maybe that’s what athletic director Dave Hart saw when he reportedly began discussions with Jones about a second-consecutive pay raise and extension.
New Year’s Day will be the high point of the Jones era at Tennessee thus far. The progress has been steady in Rocky Top. The 2015 season was no leap, but it was a step forward. And that’s what Jones and the Vols need to continue as they look ahead to next season –– building, advancing.
An Outback Bowl at the conclusion of next season will likely be insufficient for those in Rocky Top, who have been inflated with optimistic chestnuts for three straight offseasons now.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs will be a senior and fourth-year starter. That first of Jones’ top-5 recruiting classes will be in its third season with the program. Another highly-touted group of recruits –– the third straight –– will have enrolled in classes. And the high expectations for Jones’ program will be more justified than ever come next July.
Of course, that seems to be exactly what Jones fancies.
“Really, that’s what you want –– you want the expectations to be exceptionally high,” he said while in Hoover.
“That’s why you chose to come to the University of Tennessee.”