HOOVER, Ala. -- A year ago, the Tennessee Volunteers were all the rage at SEC media days. They were the overwhelming media favorites to win the SEC East, earning 225 first-place votes -- 168 more votes than eventual East champ Florida -- and coach Butch Jones seemed ready -- and equipped -- to bring the Vols out of seclusion and onto the national stage.
A year and four SEC losses later, and it was as if the Vols were barely even around.
Save for three first-place votes from the media (two fewer than a South Carolina team that won six games last year), there was little buzz surrounding Tennessee at this year's SEC media days. Jones, hot seat talk trailing him into The Wynfrey Hotel, was a beacon for mundane coach-speak and bland answers, while players were all business and refused to feed into the program's surrounding negativity.
Tennessee slipped in and out of Hoover with little fanfare, and the Vols didn't mind one bit. This team has a long way to go, especially on offense, but it certainly isn't taking the lack of attention to heart. The Vols plan to build themselves up without any preseason pats on the back.
"Being the underdog or being the over-dog doesn't matter," defensive back Emmanuel Moseley said. "You still have to come to play."
Exactly, and the Vols didn't do that in the second half of their disappointing 2016 season. After a 5-0 start that saw four comeback wins, Tennessee lost three straight, including a 49-10 throttling by Alabama and stunning 24-21 loss to a South Carolina team that entered the game 1-4 in SEC play.
Injuries piled up and, as Moseley put it, players were "satisfied" after the fast start. That in itself is perplexing when you consider the Vols overcame multiple double-digit deficits and beat a Georgia Hail Mary with their own in the final seconds in Athens to get to 5-0.
That satisfaction was more of a curse.
But this team isn't worried about last year's failures. With a team picked third in the East, thanks in large part to the plethora of offensive talent gone, Moseley said players are more focused, while senior defensive end Kendal Vickers said this team has a much more determined mindset than last year's. He wasn't taking a shot at his 2016 teammates, but he just feels there's a little more drive this time around.
"We're just very hungry this year," Vickers said. "We know what we lost, we can't dwell on it. We have guys who want to work and want to be great."
They'll have to do all that without some key components to last year's team. Gone is 9,000-yard quarterback Joshua Dobbs, all-time sack leader Derek Barnett, top receiver Josh Malone, do-everything back Alvin Kamara, and top corner Cameron Sutton. In are two relatively inexperienced quarterbacks, a host of unproven receivers, one sort of proven running back, and questions about who can adequately replace Barnett.
It truly is a rebuilding year in Knoxville, which some feel is bad timing for Jones, who has developed a contentious relationship with some in Vol Nation, despite back-to-back nine-win seasons.
"Those guys are great, but they aren't on the team anymore," Vickers said. "We have to deal with it.
"Can't use that as an excuse. It's a new year and we want to get on with it."
How the Vols "get on with it" mentally will be interesting. Players seem motivated and a bit agitated. Both are good traits for a team on the rebound.
But then there's Jones. He's no doubt a mighty motivator in front of his players, but the way he delivered part of his message on 2016 in Hoover left a lot to be desired. His response when asked about whether last year was a disappointment was weird and must have been off-putting for Vols fans.
"I don't view it as a disappointment," Jones said. "The way I view it is we didn't accomplish everything we set ourselves out to.
"So, was it a disappointment? No. Did we not accomplish some of the things we set out to do? Absolutely. We have to learn from the things that went wrong that we could have done better. ... But, again, this is a results-oriented business and we fell short of our goals. But I don't like to use the term 'disappointment' because when you still look at it, it's hard to win in this conference."
The first part is mind-numbing, but that last part isn't an excuse. You're Tennessee, and it's time to start playing like it again. This is a national program that hasn't had national relevancy since the Phillip Fulmer days, and while this Tennessee team isn't championship ready, yet, the building blocks are there to get things trending upward.
You might not hear it in Jones, but it's there in his players. They're motivated and a bit agitated, as they try and return to championship form.
"We have the ability to be the best team in the SEC," Vickers said.
"As soon as that first kick is kicked off at the Chick-fil-A [Kickoff] all that talk is going to stop and we're going to have to play football."