HOOVER, Ala. -- For the first time in coach Butch Jones' tenure, Tennessee arrived at SEC Football Media Days on Tuesday knowing it will likely be named SEC East favorite by the end of the week thanks to the 17 starters it returns from a 9-4 team.
It was clear from the time Jones and the three attending players began speaking that they had no interest in creating much news beyond their likely poll position. Jones held tightly to his cliches in each of his media meetings, and the controversy-averse trio of linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton and quarterback Joshua Dobbs dodged every attempt media members made to discuss either their long-term goals or the social media skirmish that broke out with Florida players over the offseason.Sutton wouldn't even acknowledge that the Vols were circling the Sept. 24 game against Florida on the calendar after 11 straight losses in that series.
"We open up with Appalachian State, who was an 11-win team last year," Sutton said. "We don't consider ourselves worried about games long down the road. It's one week at a time, one game at a time. That's our mindset right now. We're focused on Appalachian State. "
Dobbs' coachspeak game was at an even higher level.
"Hype is just outside," Dobbs said. "Noise, really. You can't really control hype. You can't really control what other people say. What you can control is how you approach each day, how you focus on the details, how are you getting better as a player and how is the team getting better every single day you step on the field? We're focused on that -- what we can control because we can't really do anything (about) what we can't control."
Jones and the Vols instead spent most of their time on talking points that had been established back in the spring. Jones preempted questions about the Vols blown leads last season in losses to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama by pointing out in his opening statement the same thing that he told local reporters back in the spring.
"Over the last 18 games, we're 13-5," Jones said. "And the amazing thing, when you look at it of being 13-5 over the last 18 games, is those five losses have come by a combined total of 25 points. So what are we doing to take the next step as a football program? We talk about learning how to finish games, learning how to close games out. We talked about clutch plays, making critical plays at critical moments of the game."
Jones was low on specifics about how the Vols will do that, though he acknowledged the need to get more out of the passing game.
Tennessee has the advantage of being one of the few teams in the conference with a steady quarterback situation thanks to the return of Dobbs, picked by many publications to be a second-team All-SEC quarterback. However, the Vols finished ninth in the SEC in total passing yards last season with 2,388. Dobbs threw for 2,291 of those, finishing with a modest 15 touchdowns. No Tennessee wide receiver finished with 40 receptions or 500 yards, and Von Pearson, the Vols' leading receiver last season, is out of eligibility after catching 38 passes for 409 yards and three touchdowns.
Jones stressed that the Vols need more out of that position.
"One of the keys for us moving forward and continuing to gain those 25 points is having a healthy receiving corps," Jones said. "Our players have worked exceptionally hard. Josh Malone is a young man who we really felt, by the end of the year, was doing some really good things for us. He's provided some stability to that position, but great momentum in the summer. We're excited about him. Preston Williams is another young man. Josh Smith has played a lot of football for us and he's had some clutch plays for has that helped us win football games in the past. He also helps in the leadership of that position."
The Vols otherwise got out of town without making many waves, but said they enjoyed the attention of being among the conference favorites.
"You want high expectations," Jones said. "You want high standards. I remember standing up here at the podium three short years ago, and the room was half-filled and nobody was talking about Tennessee football. That's why you coach, that's why you play is to be in a program like the University of Tennessee where everybody is talking about you."