Butch Jones expected expectations.
He and the three Vols with him at SEC Media Days Tuesday — Cameron Sutton, Curt Maggitt and Joshua Dobbs — understand the hype surrounding the program for the first time in almost ten years. The assembled media on hand codified those expectations Thursday by choosing Tennessee to finish second in the East Division in its annual preseason predictions.
It was the first time the Vols have been picked to finish higher than third in the East since 2007 and serves as a noticeable shift in perception in Knoxville.
“Obviously, the expectations have changed a little bit, but as we’re all aware, when you’re at the University of Tennessee, you always have high expectations,” Jones said. “But this year is different for each and every player in our football program, but really, that’s what you want. You want the expectations to be exceptionally high.”
Plenty has been said about the way those expectations have been embraced by Tennessee, which is relearning how to cradle the growing anticipation surrounding the team.
The program once used to managing annual hype is in new territory under Jones, who has built Tennessee into a legitimate East contender once more. The third-year head coach touched both on embracing and managing those expectations with what is widely considered to be his most talented roster yet.
“That’s why they chose to come to Tennessee, to play in a program that has high expectations,” Jones said. “But the expectations will never be as high as they are internally, and we have very high expectations for this football team. But anything worthwhile really does take time to build.”
Last year, Tennessee began the season without returning a single starter along the offensive line and it showed. The Vols ranked last in the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss allowed. This time around, Jones returns 64 combined career starts to a unit that gained valuable experience in spring practice.
“The great thing with this offensive line this spring is it’s the first time since we’ve been at Tennessee where we had our first and second group comprised of scholarship players,” Jones said. “So now we have competition, and as we all know, competition is extremely healthy.”
Vols do Nashville
Jones reiterated his enthusiasm to open the season in Nashville at the newly renamed Nissan Stadium. With new basketball head coach Rick Barnes also stating his excitement to stake a claim in Tennessee’s capital with potential future annual games in the city, Jones echoed his sentiments.
“We’re very, very excited to open up in Nashville at Nissan Stadium, and it’s going to be a thrill for all of our players from the mid-state area, from middle Tennessee, and for the entire state of Tennessee to open up in Nashville,” he said. “Nashville means so much to us."
Tennessee faces Bowling Green at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Sept. 5 at 4 p.m. ET.
Jones discusses Volunteers