They were right.
Facing Alabama, Auburn, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in 2013 proved to be a bit tougher than facing Pitt, Louisville, Syracuse, Temple, Rutgers, South Florida and UConn had been in 2012.
Now that he has survived one tour of duty in SEC warfare, however, Jones believes he is better prepared for Year 2 at the Volunteer helm.
"First of all, I know much more about the league in general and about our football program – where we're at, where we need to go and how we need to get there," Jones told InsideTennessee during Tuesday night's Big Orange Caravan stop at Munsey United Methodist Church. "I think that was the big thing … just learning the lay of the land.
"In one year we'll be so much better, and then in Year 2, Year 3, Year 4 and so on."
Without saying it in so many words, Jones hinted that the SEC proved even tougher last fall than anticipated.
"There are no off days," he said. "The competition from top to bottom (is such that) anybody can beat anybody, so you have to be ready to play."
Teams especially must be "ready to play" when they encounter a quality opponent and a rowdy crowd in places such as Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Auburn, Athens and Columbia. Life on the road in the SEC is not for the faint of heart.
Noting that a huge key to survival in the SEC is "the ability to win on the road," Jones added: "Every week when you go on the road you're playing in hostile environments, so you have to be strong mentally and physically, and you have to have great leadership to prove you can win on the road."
The catch? Leadership generally comes from seniors, and Tennessee is just about void of those these days. That makes winning an SEC road game an even more daunting task for the 2014 Volunteers.
"It's going to be a great challenge, only having 12 seniors," Jones conceded. "We're going to have to grow up in a hurry."
Veteran teams can overcome an occasional off-day on the practice field. That's a luxury the fuzzy-cheeked Vols cannot afford.
"We have to focus on the moment, each and every day," Jones said. "We can never get ahead of ourselves. We have to have great consistency in performance. We have to continue to demand. We have to continue to have every moment be a teaching moment. We have to continue to get bigger. We have to continue to get stronger."
And the coaches have to continue to be patient. Watching your team take its first shaky steps toward winning is a lot like watching your child take its first shaky steps toward walking – nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding.
"It's like raising your kids: It's invigorating. It's exciting," Jones said. "Our patience will be challenged. They (2014 signees) are very, very talented but our older players have really done a great job of building their work capacity. We have more individuals staying here at mini-term than we have in the history of our program. I think that speaks volumes for what's going on within the four walls of the Anderson Training Center and also in our locker room."
When Butch Jones talks about "our older players," he's including the 14 freshmen and junior-college transfers who enrolled at mid-term and participated in spring practice. They must play like veterans and lead like veterans to set a strong example for the 18 newcomers soon to join the mix. So far, so good.
"Let me tell you something: They (mid-term enrollees) have communicated well with the 18 individuals that will be enrolling here in about a week," Jones said, specifically mentioning "the standards, the expectations, building up your work capacity and the overall mindset."
GILLIAM, SWAFFORD GET GRANTS
Jones announced that rising senior offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam (Knoxville Farragut) and rising sophomore safety Devaun Swafford (Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett) are being placed on scholarship. Gilliam worked with the first unit at left tackle much of spring practice. Swafford is a key man in the safety rotation who started two 2013 games at nickel back.
Calling both promotions "very well deserved," Jones added that a third walk-on probably will be placed on scholarship in the near future.
Asked what specifically set Gilliam and Swafford apart from the other walk-ons, Jones replied: "It's a work ethic. It's everything that goes into it … the ability to handle adversity and persevere. They're very, very consistent in their approach. Not only are they helping us on the field; they're doing well in the classroom."
In conclusion, Jones noted that "One of the exciting things about being a coach is being able to present them and their families with a scholarship because I know they've worked exceptionally hard for that."
UPDATE ON PIG'S FUTURE
Jones said Alton Howard, who missed spring practice for reasons never fully disclosed, continues to make progress toward rejoining the program. Jones said one of the terms of that return is "getting up to speed academically." Toward that end, "Pig" has decided to stay in Knoxville for the mini-term.
"He's enrolled in classes; he'll be working out with the team," Jones said, adding that the requirements for Howard's return to the team "will be ongoing throughout the summer months."