HOOVER, Ala. — The doldrums of college football's offseason provided Tennessee the opportunity to remain insulated from life as this season's SEC East Division favorite.
There was no hiding from it, though, the moment coach Butch Jones and three seniors set foot inside the Hyatt Regency here early Tuesday afternoon.
The Volunteers appear prepared, however, to embrace their newfound status.
"The message (today) is that Tennessee is back," quarterback Josh Dobbs said.
"It's not a bad thing," he added. "That just means people realize Tennessee is a true contender. Obviously we have our own expectations (and) we set high expectations for ourselves."
The league's preseason poll won't be released until Thursday, but surely the Vols will top rivals Georgia and Florida in the East. It's been 11 years since Tennessee was picked to win its division. Before last season's runner-up projection, the Vols hadn't been picked to finish better than fourth since 2008.
It's new territory for a program starving for any semblance of national relevance.
"We went through it last year a little bit," Jones said. "It's not where you start, it's where you finish. When we started recruiting this class and we started recruiting these classes, one of the things we talked about (with) them is getting Tennessee football back to relevance, is getting Tennessee football in the conversations of where it belongs.
"All we can control is what we can control, and that's it. No more, no less. That's why we talk about owning it. That's our theme for this year: Own your attitude; own the expectations; own your style of play; own the football program; own your position group. We've been more focused on that. It's more about us, more than anyone else."
The Vols have enough veterans and leaders to know that division titles aren't won in July, even if most of the pundits and talking heads already are crowning them.
"I guess that's what everyone tries to make it seem, but we haven't played a game yet," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "Externally it seems like that more than internally. We don't focus on that in our program. We focus on getting better each and every day. We focus on each other, taking care of each other, having each other's backs. That's our temperament.
"We haven't proclaimed anything to anyone yet."
At this event a year ago, the Vols were perceived on the precipice of returning to their self-proclaimed rightful place among the SEC and national elite.
Missed opportunities kept them there, but while the six-game win streak to end last season and the Outback Bowl thrashing of Northwestern are contributing factors, Tennessee is in its current position due to the talent and experience on the roster.
"There's always expectations placed upon us," Dobbs said. "We kind of echo the same mindset across the team. Our goal is to focus on what we can control and focus on the controllables. If we do that, then we'll be able to take care of business.
"We can't buy into outside mindsets or outside expectations. We just have to focus on what we can control and focus on making the most of every opportunity we step on the field."
There's been steady, tangible progress under Jones, who's increased his win total by two in each of the past two seasons. When he took over, the Vols were an afterthought, and the talent level was glaringly low. The improvement deserves recognition even as Tennessee gears up for a potentially special season.
"I don't think we can ever forget that," Jones said. "That was my message to our coaching staff and our entire staff before we left this summer for some vacation. We've worked extremely hard, and there's a lot of people that have been involved with that — not just the coaches, but the support staff and the players. You earn everything that you get.
"It is great to have Tennessee talked about, because that's why you coach at Tennessee. That's why you come and you play at Tennessee. You're expected to win championships and compete for championships."
Tennessee followed up its last preseason division crown in 2005 by flopping to a 5-6 record. These Vols seem determined to finish what they left incomplete last season.
"I don't think about being disappointed or think about coming up short," Reeves-Maybin said. "That's not how I operate, and I don't think that's how our team operates. We come and try to put our best foot forward, and we think the game will take care of itself if we prepare and we work and we grind and we stay focused like we always have."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.