Vols likely to finish middle of pack in SEC East

Tennessee Coach Butch Jones
Tennessee coach Butch Jones speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering Monday in Hoover, Ala. [AP Photo/Butch Dill]

HOOVER, Ala. — Over the course of a year, the Tennessee Vols have gone from loved to overlooked.

And they’re just fine with that.

“It doesn’t bother us at all,” senior cornerback Emmanuel Moseley said at SEC Media Days on Monday.

Tennessee drew all kinds of preseason love from the media last summer. The Volunteers were the consensus pick to win the Eastern Division, which would have been their first since 2007, and they were a popular storyline at SEC Media Days.

Tennessee seemed to have it all. Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. Derek Barnett at defensive end. Alvin Kamara at running back. Josh Malone at wide receiver. Cameron Sutton at cornerback. And on and on.

Well, those players are all gone now, and the expectations of a year ago have departed with them.

Along with all the love.

At the end of the week, the media likely will project Tennessee to finish third in the division behind Florida and Georgia.

That’s OK, too.

“We really don’t listen to much from the outside,” senior offensive guard Jashon Robertson said. “We just focus on the things we can control — working out, honing in on our technique on the field and studying in the film room.”

With so many dynamic players missing from last year’s team, the expectations certainly have dramatically changed for Tennessee. But the expectations for the Vols are different than the ones they have for themselves.

This is a team that expects to have success, that has plans to make it to Atlanta as the champs of the East.

“We go into every season expecting to win every game,” Robertson said. “That’s our overall goal, to win all our games. That’s why you come to the University of Tennessee. That hasn’t change.”

Heading into the 2016 season, expectations for the Vols were higher than they’d been in years. And through the first part of the season, it appeared they would live up to them — ending an 11-game losing streak to Florida and sprinting out to a 5-0 start.

Vols’ fans were ready to start making reservations to Atlanta.

But those plans were swamped by what followed — a three-game losing streak to Texas A&M, Alabama and South Carolina.

And, of course, the team in the East they hate the most (Florida) ended up taking their place in the SEC Championship Game.

Those big expectations that were so eagerly embraced heading into the season seemed to start weighing heavily on the Vols over the course of the year, although they say that wasn’t the case.

“They weren’t tough to deal with,” Moseley said. “Because we have the same expectation for ourselves. Ever since I’ve been here, that’s been the same expectation.”

The Vols have a lot of holes to fill if they hope to meet their expectations this season. And it starts with replacing their biggest playmaker and team leader — Dobbs.

UT coach Butch Jones isn’t sure yet who that will be — either junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Their competition for the starting role has carried over to preseason camp.

“You’re replacing an individual who really leaves a legacy at the University of Tennessee in Joshua Dobbs and everything that he brought to the quarterback position,” Jones said. “When he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was the highest drafted quarterback since Peyton Manning in our program’s history, so he’s brought a lot.

“But I’m really, really excited about the quarterbacks that we have in our program, and I think the competition at that position is really elevated the level of play of everyone else around them.

“You have two kind of distinct personalities. You have a young individual in Jarrett Guarantano, very energetic, very demonstrative, very passionate, very, very talented, and then Quinten Dormady, who is a coach’s son, who has kind of been in our football program. So a little bit different in terms of personality-wise, but these two individuals are very, very talented.”

Jones said he will not name a starter until the time is right, and that it will be determined on the field during camp.

Robertson said the players have equal confidence in both.

“Josh did a great job for us. He would sit in there and take some shots and hit some strikes. He made a lot of plays for us,” Robertson said. “It’s tough production to replace. But, at the same time, we have two great quarterbacks right now.

“Whoever the starter is, we’ll protect him and get the job done.”

If the Vols don’t get it done this season, lot’s more heat figures to fall on Jones, who just can’t seem to get the UT program over the division hurdle — even with a win over Florida last season.

If there’s any heat now, Jones doesn’t appear to be feeling it. He stood at the podium Monday and talked confidently about his program and the progress that’s been made in his four seasons.

“We’re very proud of the fact that it’s very, very difficult to win in the Southeastern Conference, and we’re one of only three programs that have won nine games two years in a row,” Jones said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have three straight bowl victories, first time in 20 years in our great program’s history and tradition.

“But there’s so much more out there. There’s so much more out there to be accomplished, and we’ve only started. And what I like about this year’s football team, is they’re very, very driven, very, very motivated.”

And maybe a little overlooked. But they seem OK with that.

— Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.