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Butch Jones
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Alabama quarterback Blake Sims talks with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, left, during what has become an unprecedented early-season offensive display for the longtime national power.

KNOXVILLE -- Curt Maggitt, Corey Vereen and Cam Sutton glanced at each other as the smiles began to form across their faces.

The laughs of the three Tennessee football players then broke the few seconds of awkward silence.

Thus began the Lane Kiffin portion of the Volunteers' interview session early Monday afternoon.

In case someone hasn't heard, the former one-year Tennessee coach, who left the Vols in the night for Southern California five Januarys ago, will be back in Knoxville and on the Neyland Stadium visitors' sideline Saturday night as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

"We're just focused on playing football," said Vereen, a sophomore defensive end. "It's our team against their team. We're not focused on the exterior things, Lane Kiffin or whoever it is coming back."

It's probably safe to say that's not the case for Tennessee's fans.

Kiffin's year at Tennessee in 2009 was an eventful one, and the whirlwind included his brash verbal jabs at some SEC rivals, a highly ranked signing class that didn't pan out and an NCAA investigation into the program's recruiting practices.

There were wins against Georgia and South Carolina and a near upset of No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and Tennessee's 4-4 mark in SEC play that season remains the program's only .500 season in the league since the Vols played in the SEC championship game in 2007.

Because of how Kiffin's tenure ended, odds are Tennessee fans will boo him and the Crimson Tide lustily at every chance.

"I know Vol Nation's excited about a win over Alabama," Maggitt said. "Us as football players, we don't really get much into that. Our job is to prepare and play."

Butch Jones, Tennessee's current coach, said he has never met Kiffin.

"The game means everything to our football program and our fans because it's the University of Alabama, not because it's Lane Kiffin," Jones said. "Three-quarters of our team -- he's a great coach, but nobody knows who Lane Kiffin is. That's for the fans.

"We have to concentrate on the game. We're playing a great, great opponent, a top-five opponent. They played as inspired of a football game as I've seen in a very, very long time against Texas A&M. They're a great football team.

"They're a measuring stick for a lot of programs, so again, we have to focus on the task at hand."

For Tennessee, that task is bouncing back from its worst loss of the season, a 34-3 rout at third-ranked Ole Miss, in time to regroup for a Tide team coming off a 59-0 blitz of the Aggies.

"I wouldn't say it's hard to stay positive," said Maggitt, one of the team's leaders. "You know when you're so close. It's like Coach says, we're digging for gold, and the person that stops is usually the closest person to the gold.

"Me being a leader, my job is to keep the team focused on just one. Every week's a new season. We have a new opportunity. We're back in Neyland, and it's a great chance."

Tennessee is getting plenty of those lately, too.

The fourth-ranked Tide will be the fourth ranked team Tennessee has faced in its first eight games of the season. In his first 20 games as the coach of the Vols, Jones will have faced 11 ranked teams. All but two were ranked in the top 15 at kickoff.

"That's life in the SEC," Jones said. "Has it been a great challenge? Yes. I don't think anyone's ever been through that, but it's going to make us better in the long run. It shows you who's with you. Everyone has a chance to prove themselves, but again, you have to be resilient.

"As the caretaker, as the leader, you have to focus on the bull's-eye but also see the broad picture of where you're going. We're making great strides, and we're making great progress. We just need to continue to assemble talent, recruit and develop the young men that are here."

Most of Tennessee's roster came after Kiffin's year, and the two classes Jones has signed the past two years were in the eighth and ninth grades when Kiffin was coaching the Vols.

Fifth-year senior offensive lineman Marques Pair, who's played in just eight career games, actually committed to Kiffin in June 2009, and A.J. Johnson, Tennessee's two-time All-SEC linebacker, gave the first of his two pledges after visiting for Tennessee's 45-19 dismantling of Georgia in 2009.

"Before my time," said Sutton, a sophomore cornerback. "I don't have any familiarity with him or anything. It was never a distraction anyway. We're worried about playing football."

Kiffin's return will be the main storyline of the week, but Jones said it will have "no meaning in the outcome."

"No distraction at all," Maggitt said. "A lot of the younger guys don't even know who that is. We're just focused on this week and focused on preparation and playing ball."

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