KNOXVILLE — Another offseason of hype and expectations is underway for Tennessee's football program.
And that's fine with coach Butch Jones.
After a 9-4 season and a Top 25 finish, the bar will be even higher for the Volunteers in 2016, and the amount of talent and experience returning warrants expectations of a possible Southeastern Conference championship and 10-plus wins.
Jones and his players know what's out there regarding the hopes for next season.
"When you're at Tennessee, the expectations are always high," Jones told fans at a recruiting celebration in Knoxville this past week. "And we're not going to hide from these expectations. This is what we expect, and this is what we work for. We're Tennessee, and that's just the way we are.
"I think we learned so much from last year, and I'm really proud of our players."
When the rest of the 2016 class signed this week arrives on campus in a couple of months, Tennessee's roster will include seven former five-star prospects and 33 former four-star recruits, according to Rivals.com's rankings.
The four classes Jones signed at Tennessee were ranked 21st (2013), fifth (2014), fifth (2015) and 15th (2016).
The only notable personnel losses are at safety, where Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil patrolled the back line of the defense for the better part of four years, and leading wide receiver Von Pearson.
Defensively the hopes are high for new coordinator Bob Shoop's impact, while offensively the Vols must improve throwing the ball to complement a rushing attack that set program records in 2015.
Arguably the three best recruiting efforts the Vols had this winter were getting linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton and running back Alvin Kamara to return instead of entering the NFL draft. All three are valuable pieces of Tennessee's puzzle and the kind of difference-makers needed to win championships.
"We're 13-5 in our last 18 games, and of those five losses they've been by a total of 25 points," Jones said. "We're developing something special here."
The 2015 season did not get off to a special start, however, and Jones pointed to a team meeting after the Arkansas loss that left the Vols 2-3 as the turning point.
"We were sitting at the crossroads," he recalled. "We just lost to Arkansas. We usually have Sunday off, and after that game I called a team meeting at 8 o'clock. I'll never forget, our players showed up at about 7:30, and there was an eerie coldness in our building. By about 7:40 they were in the seats, so we started about 20 minutes early.
"I walk in and they're like, 'What's coming next? Is something going on?' They were scared to death."
Jones promptly got the attention of his players and delivered the message he felt they needed to hear.
"I said, you know what, we're a really good football team. Don't let anybody tell you anything different," Jones related. "It's what we make from this, and where do we go from here. You finish with six straight victories, a Top 25 performance, another January bowl game, a bowl game championship.
"We've come a long way, we have a long way to go, but I'm exceptionally proud."
Tennessee can dream as big as it wants for 2016, but it all starts with winning the SEC's East Division. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri all have new coaches. Florida will visit Neyland Stadium in September seeking its 12th straight win against Tennessee.
The Vols almost certainly will be the SEC East favorites and begin the season ranked in the top 15.
The expectations, both publicly and internally, will include championships.
"We want those expectations," Jones said. "I think we learned from it, but we also know the teams that stay together and win championships when it's all said and done manage the natural adversities a long football season brings about.
"I will tell you this: There is a different spirit, there is a different mentality (and) a different mindset in the Anderson Training Center right now. This football team is very determined, and they're very focused."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org