This day has been nearly a decade in the making. Tennessee hasn’t tasted true relevancy since they earned a spot in the SEC Championship game in 2007.
Through the disaster that was the Lane Kiffin era and one of the worst three-year stretches in program history with Derek Dooley, it appears that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. The fears that the Vols might never return to the conversation in the top tier of the SEC were finally put to rest on Tuesday, at least for the most part.
When Butch Jones, Josh Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cam Sutton arrived at the Hyatt Regency in Hoover, AL for SEC Media Days, the excitement was palpable. Pundits from the press and fans alike knew the heavy favorite in the eastern division of the Southeastern Conference had just walked in.
The questions fielded by Jones and his players weren’t about where they are in the rebuilding process or what needs improvement in the coming season, as they have been in years past. Rather, it seemed as though every question lobbed at the Vols’ representatives was about how they’re handling the expectations of being a big-time contender.
Tennessee is back.
That was confirmed as everyone who observed UT’s question-and-answer sessions saw that the widely-held belief is that the Vols will be one of the top teams not only in the SEC, but in America. As a result, the primary question now is how this team will handle the heavy weight of the hype.
“That’s why you coach at the University of Tennessee. You want those expectations,” Butch Jones told a room full of local and national press members, “I think it’s a compliment to everyone in our program of how far we’ve come. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
And there it is. Finishing. All Tennessee has to do now is finish.
Finish what Jones and his staff have worked so hard to build. Finish by finally winning the SEC East and killing the elephant in the room that keeps saying Tennessee will come up short because that’s just what they do.
It’s that simple. Just finish.
And it appears that the Vols may be ready to take on the challenge.
“Our players have been remarkable. They have not looked up. They have not blinked, and they’ve just been focused on their own self-determination, becoming a better football player and becoming a better football team.” Jones said.
We won’t truly know for sure if that focus and determination has paid off until September 1st when Appalachian State comes to Neyland Stadium, but as of right now, Tennessee is officially back. At least, back in the national conversation. Back to real, tangible relevancy. Frankly, there’s not much more that could be asked of this team right now.
The talent is there. The work is there. The belief is there. Now, just go win some football games.