HOOVER, Ala. _ When medicority hits tradition-rich programs like Tennessee, fans like Doug Deters hurt deeply.
Deters, a Vols’ fan from Jacksonville, Fla., stood among a handful of orange-clad faithful at the bottom of the escalator in the hotel lobby, awaiting the emergence of Tennessee players and Coach Butch Jones at SEC Media Days on Tuesday.
They come with photos and footballs ready for signatures and to share fandom. It’s been a while since the chatter has been this upbeat.
“About 10 years,” Deters said. “The ball bounces funny ways, and in the last eight or 10 years whatever way the ball needs to bounce for us it bounced the opposite way. But this year can really be special.”
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Preseason media gatherings ooze optimism, and nobody at the SEC event matches Tennessee’s vibe. Early indicators like the magazines and polls forecast an East title, and the league’s official preseason poll out Thursday surely will confirm the favorite’s role.
But Coach Butch Jones and the players want no part of a July championship.
“That’s what everyone tries to make it seem,” senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “Externally it seems more like that than internally.”
Restraint is the right course. Tennessee has experienced so much pain and disappointment since 2007, the last time it finished first in the East, that projecting anything more than a quiet confidence would leave the program open to ridicule.
And there’s been enough embarrassment for one of the game’s top brands. Phil Fulmer’s final team in 2008 missed a bowl game for the third time in 27 years and started a stretch of seven straight non-winning conference seasons. Everybody in the division pushed forward and ahead at some point, including newcomer Missouri, winners of two division titles since 2013.
Lane Kiffin, Fulmer’s successor, proved a disasterous hire when he bolted after one year, and Derek Dooley wasn’t the answer.
The Vols trust Butch Jones is. Last season, his third in Knoxville, was a big next step with a 9-4 finish, but Tennessee couldn’t avoid painful losses.
A 17-0 lead over Oklahoma wasn’t enough to avoid a home loss in double overtime. Two weeks later, the Vols led Florida in Gainesville by 13 in the fourth quarter and lost to extend Florida’s winning streak over Tennessee to 11, a condition Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis mocked a day earlier in the same room.
“It’s always the funnest games of the year,” Davis said of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. “Because we win.”
The quote didn’t go unnoticed by the Vols, who shrugged it off.
“Obviously we see it because a lot of our guys are connected to social media and it’s something we can’t really turn ourselves from, but we have a lot more to worry about than that,” senior defensive back Cameron Sutton said.
Tennessee has less to worry about than others in the division. Joshua Dobbs is one of the SEC’s few returning starting quarterbacks. The team lists 17 returning starters, the most in the division. Georgia and Missouri introduce new coaches. Last year’s division champion, Florida, wobbled at the end and has lost most of its starters.
It all points to a big season and, “time to end some of those streaks,” Deters said. Not just the skid against the gators, but Tennessee has lost nine straight to Alabama and 24 in a row against top 10 opponents.
Still, 100,000 or more regularly pack Neyland Stadium, even in the bad times. They come to see the checkerboard end zone, the block T helmets and sing “Rocky Top” until they’re hoarse. Tennessee is flush with some of college football’s great traditions. Winning is one that had eluded the program recently, and the feeling is strong the return is imminent.
What the Vols won’t do is promise results, a wise move for a program that hasn’t talked or played enough of a good game in recent years.
SEC East winners since 2007