Let’s set the record straight. Preseason rankings and accolades don’t matter.
Whether Phil Steele leaves Derek Barnett off his All-SEC list or puts him in the magazine’s Heisman conversation, the only substantial thing it does is give radio guys and writers something to talk about in the desperate summer months when actual football seems like a pipe dream. You could buy a box of crayons and draw your own magazine with pretty pictures and shiny boxes and it would matter as much as Sports Illustrated’s preseason predictions (I urge you to send them to us when you’re done.)
But when Steele stuck Barnett — who is undoubtedly an SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidate — on his All-SEC third team Monday, you would have thought he designed the new Tennessee state logo with the collective outrage he received from Vols fans. It was such a thorough and vicious smackdown that Steele later posted an apology admitting he should have put Barnett higher on his list.
Tennessee faithful expected their star to be in the conversation for first-team All-SEC, and also expect their team at the bottom of most Top 25 polls steadily starting to come out.
The word expectation might sound funny to Vols fans when rolling it around in their mouths, because it’s been years since they’ve been able to say it. Gone are the days when Big Orange faithful cringe when they walk into Walgreens and see the magazine rack. The bragging rights have shifted from Derek Dooley’s hair to Butch Jones’ flair.
The third-year Tennessee coach has turned hope into expectation, and it’s finally rearing its head this summer. It’s a good thing, too, and something Jones relishes as his team prepares to live up to them. After all, if you have growing expectations, it means you’re doing something right.
It’s obvious how much better Tennessee has become in two short years, from the back-to-back top five recruiting classes to the successful streak to end the 2014 season to the bowl beat-down of Iowa the Vols enjoyed so much.
But college football is unique in its rabid fandom, and the vast improvement on Rocky Top is even more evident when Jimmy and Billy can pick up an Athlon without giving themselves a paper cut on the tongue to ease the emotional pain.
Throw the statistics, analytics and evaluations out the window. The real litmus test on the growth of a program lies in its preseason magazine sales, and I know Tennessee fans are finally gobbling them up again like hungry Blueticks.
So expect to enjoy your next trip to the grocery store when you see Jalen Hurd on the cover of a magazine and know the inside is as glossy as the outside. Expect to argue nonstop with your co-worker because Lindy’s has the Vols at No. 17 and Mark Schlabach said No. 24. Expect high expectations, overblown predictions and great conversation starters to flow seamlessly in the magazines you once again hold dear.
Just don’t expect them to be cheap.