This is the year Coach Butch Jones pointed to from the beginning. He told us in year one the team had some nice parts but lacked the kind of depth needed to compete for championships. Finally, after three years -- and four recruiting classes -- the new coach has his team in place. For Vols fans it has been much longer than three years. It has been closer to 10 since Phillip Fulmer's Vols were relevant nationally or even in the SEC for that matter. The time in the shadows officially ended last year.

That's when a very young Tennessee team came agonizingly close to beating two of the four playoff teams -- including the eventual national champion -- finishing a respectable 9-4.

Still, the staff and team know that just stepping back out into the light isn't the goal at Tennessee. The goal is having the light pointing directly at them. Nothing less than an eastern division championship will satisfy Vol fans this year.

In fact, some expect much, much more. According to Jones, he and his staff feel this way as well. They and the team embrace the high expectations winning again has created.

Fast start a must for Volunteers

As usual, the schedule is weighted more heavily in the first half of the season. Tennessee doesn't have to play like a top 10 team to win the last five games. They should be favored in all. First up Appalachian State, who won the Sun Belt conference and a bowl game, finishing last season at 11-2.

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This is the school that upset Michigan in the big house about ten years ago. In addition, the Mountaineers played Clemson (lost 41-10), Wyoming (won 31-13) and Georgia Southern (won 31-13) last year. I mention these games to illustrate that Ap. State will not be intimidated playing very good teams or in front of a big crowd on the road. 

The next three games -- Virginia Tech, Ohio and Florida -- are all winnable.

In fact, the Vols should win them all. Virginia Tech is just not close to Tennessee in talent, though they will be well coached. The same for Ohio. Florida isn't nearly as far behind U.T. in talent as what you read and hear would suggest. Still, Tennessee once again should be the better team.

Volunteer coaching will be tested

Last season the coaching staff made a couple of critical calls late in losses to Oklahoma and Florida.

The calls were debatable decisions but not necessarily wrong. In both cases had they made a play on any of several opportunities, Tennessee wins and no problem. The coaching decisions on two fourth downs just before half time in the Georgia game were much more dangerous. But they worked out -- one with the receiver on his back when making the first down catch -- and no big deal. Unless the calls were totally wrong -- which isn't the case -- over time such decisions even out.

It's Florida, dummy!

That will be the game where the coaching staff is under a larger than normal microscope. However, given that the Vols are at home and actually have the better team, they should win the ball game. Great teams find a way to win these type games. If the Vols lose to Florida again, nothing short of somehow winning the SEC would rescue Jones from the wrath of the fans and media.  

If the Volunteers start 4-0 they are in great shape but the coaches will have another very daunting task. That is keeping the team on an even footing going into the mid-season at Georgia and Texas A&M, then back home for AlabamaTennessee is a very talented team. The challenge early is to get back to the way they were playing at the end of last year. Do that, and this staff -- and team -- catch lightning in a bottle. Do that, and the fans and media will start singing the praises of a coaching staff who deserve just that.

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