By Alex Norman

The Tennessee Volunteers are not going to win the national championship this season, nor will they win the SEC championship.  They won’t finish first in their division, and would be fortunate to win seven games.

Just don’t tell them that…

Last week new Vols head coach Butch Jones, offensive linemen Antonio “Tiny” Richardson and Ja’Wuan James, and defensive lineman Jacques Smith ran the gauntlet of anchors, reporters, writers and fans posing as objective, credible members of the press at the annual SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.

Not surprisingly, they said all the right things.

“We look forward to the challenge of this upcoming season,” said Jones. “Very proud of what our team has accomplished in a very short period of time. But moving forward, obviously August camp is going to be critical as we continue to create our identity for Team 117.”

Players have bought into the system Jones has brought to Knoxville.  They also seem to have connected with him in ways that certainly weren’t the case when Derek Dooley was in charge from 2010-2012.

“He’s very personable,” said Richardson. “He’s always trying to build a personal relationship with his players and when you have a coach like that, it’s going to make you want to run through walls for him.”

“It has been the easiest transition out of all the coaches that we’ve had,” said Smith. “Coach Jones made a genuine introduction of himself. He got off the plane, walked into the team room with his family and introduced his sons and his wife to the team. It was quite an impression that stuck with every single player.”

“Since Day One, he’s brought passion and excitement to the game,” added James. “He’s making the game fun again. In our spring game, we had DJ’s out there just trying to keep us pumped up. At the same time, he’s serious when it’s time to be serious and he’s overall a great person.”

Teams often take on the personality of their coach.  It certainly appears to be the case with the Vols and Jones.  His energy and success on the recruiting trail has people excited about Tennessee football once again.

“We talked about building a championship culture, working to get Tennessee football back to its rightful place back among the elite of college football. We talked about doing that brick by brick,” said Jones. “That’s not a fancy slogan; we really meant that as every brick is symbolic of every individual in our football family and our football organization. It’s having clearly defined and articulated standards, expectations and values that are going to guide you on a day to day basis.”

By all accounts this will be a transitional year for the Tennessee football program.  Most of the offensive playmakers are gone, giving young, mostly inexperienced players an opportunity to shine. The defense moves back to a 4-3 alignment following a disastrous experiment in the 3-4 under then defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.

Still, the players that stuck around the program that has seen four different head coaches since 2008 are not willing to play out the string.

“(Winning) is very important and I’m sure it’s imminent to every senior. I know it’s a goal of mine and I’m sure every senior wants to win,” said Smith. “With the situation that we’re in, winning would be the best thing ever and if we lost, it would be terrible. (But) there’s no choice, we are going to win, and when we do, we’re going to be marked as the class that changes this Tennessee program. Expectations are high, and if we’re expecting high things, the outcome is going to be great.”

Coach/player quotes courtesy