Josh Kendall

Tennessee rocky at the top of SEC East picks pile

Tennessee coach Butch Jones
Tennessee coach Butch Jones AP

They haven’t beaten in-division rival Florida in 11 years. They haven’t beaten their oldest conference rival Alabama in 10 years. Yet here the Tennessee Volunteers are, the pick of most folks to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007.

“I love it,” Volunteers coach Butch Jones said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “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, I’d rather have this. That’s why you coach. That’s why you play, is 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.”

Many of the warm and fuzzy feelings about Tennessee in 2016 come from a six-game winning streak to end the 2015 season, and promises from the Volunteers that they’ve learned their lessons after blowing big second-half leads against Florida and Oklahoma in the first half of last season.

“We have the highest expectations for ourselves,” Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs said. “We hold the highest standards of ourselves to be great this upcoming season each and every time we step on the field. We are excited, and we are pushing each other every day.”

Jones didn’t back away from the expectations Tuesday. If anything, he leaned into them.

“Over the last 18 games, we’re 13-5, and the amazing thing is those five losses have come by a combined total of 25 points,” he pointed out.

Later, he said, “We’re not building it for quick fixes where you have one or two successful years then all of a sudden you’re struggling again. This program is going to be etched in stone and concrete to where it maintains sustainable success.”

The reality remains, though, that Jones is 10-14 in SEC competition at Tennessee, and that six-game winning streak came against teams that finished the season with a combined record of 28-45 (.384 winning percentage). Under Jones, the Volunteers have beaten two SEC teams that finished that season with a winning record (Georgia in 2015 and South Carolina in 2013).

“So what are we doing to take the next step as a football program?” Jones asked rhetorically. “We talk about learning how to finish games, learning how to close games out. We talked about clutch plays, making critical plays at critical moments of the game. But you want those expectations. I think it’s a compliment to everyone in our program of how far we’ve come.”

More than 1,000 media members are gathered at this week’s event, and their picks for the division champs and overall conference champs will be released later this week. The Vols fully expect to be at the top of the East Division predictions.

“We have addressed it, but it’s not anything that gets in our way,” senior linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin said of the expectations. “We don’t come into the day talking about, ‘Did you see how they rated us?’ We don’t talk about that at all. Our conversations about football are about getting better, about what we are planning on accomplishing this year.”

That includes a trip to Atlanta.