Hoover, Ala. — I’m on the record as picking Tennessee to win the SEC East. (Yes, over Georgia, which will surely be the choice of those gathered here for SEC Media Days.) I confess that much of my rationale can be condensed to three words.
Process of elimination.
I don’t think this will be one of Mark Richt’s vintage teams. I see South Carolina as in decline. I don’t believe Florida is ready to win big in Year 1 under Jim McElwain. I can’t imagine Missouri will win the division. That pretty much leaves Tennessee.
A lot of SEC media types roll their eyes when Butch Jones’ name is mentioned. They think he’s a coach bigger on bromides and boilerplate than on true inspiration. I’ll concede that he comes across as a corporate type, but most football coaches do. (That’s why we love Steve Spurrier. He doesn’t.) And I have to say that he inherited a job where a fly-by-night approach — here we invoke the name of Lane Kiffin — had left the Big Orange in disarray.
Tennessee went 7-6 against a brutal schedule last season. In his remarks here, Jones took a gentle jab at Spurrier, who earlier in the day suggested the Vols had gotten giddy over winning the TaxSlayer Bowl. (Though Spurrier conceded that South Carolina had itself been tickled to win the Independence Bowl and likewise finish 7-6.)
“Contrary to reports, there were no backflips,” Jones said. “There were no somersaults.”
Then this: “You’re either an overachiever or an underachiever. Last year’s team overachieved. We were the youngest team in college football.”
The good thing about young teams is that they get older. Less clear is whether they’ll get better. Tennessee has recruited well enough Jones to make us think this might be an aggregation ready to take a great leap forward. But how is coach to know when a promising team is poised to become a proven one?
“There has to come a defining moment,” Jones said, “when everything you’ve been preaching and preaching comes to fruition.”
That moment might come Sept. 12, when Oklahoma enters Neyland Stadium, but the Sooners are coming off a five-loss season and aren’t an SEC team. It might come two weeks later in the Swamp, but Florida doesn’t figure to be ranked. It might come the next week against Arkansas, but the Hogs were themselves 7-6 last season.
No, if you’re looking the first real moment for Tennessee to establish its bona fides, that would come Oct. 10: The presumptive SEC East favorite versus the Vols in the massive stadium on the banks of the Tennessee River.
“There needs to be tangible evidence,” Jones said. “You always at some point in time need a defining moment.”
Beating Georgia on Oct. 10 would supply such evidence. Losing to Georgia would tell us that Jones’ rebuilding isn’t nearly complete.
From earlier Tuesday: The great Spurrier is surely nearing an end.
From Monday: Auburn-Louisville — the all-time Atlanta hate game.
From earlier Monday: Auburn banks on a big QB with a big arm.