Tennessee Volunteers drawing buzz again in SEC

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HOOVER, Ala. (AP) People are talking about the Tennessee Volunteers as potential Southeastern Conference contenders again.

After making steady progress the past three years under coach Butch Jones and bringing in three straight highly rated recruiting classes, the Vols are again regarded as legitimate contenders in the SEC Eastern Division.

Many of the questions Jones and his players faced Tuesday at the league's media days concerned dealing with hype and divisional front-runner status. It's a fairly dramatic change from a few years ago.

''I remember standing up here at the podium three short years ago, and the room was half filled and nobody was talking about Tennessee football,'' Jones said. ''That's why you coach. That's why you play, is to be in a program like the University of Tennessee where everybody is talking about you. That's what you work for. Now it's what you do with that opportunity.''

Tennessee hasn't won an SEC title since the 1998 national championship team. The Vols last played in the SEC title game in 2007, largely falling behind Georgia, Florida and other programs at times during that stretch.

Jones has led the Vols on a climb from five wins to seven to nine during his first three years. They finished second in the East last season after blowing a fourth-quarter lead in a 28-27 loss to eventual division champion Florida.

Now, quarterback Joshua Dobbs is trying to help continue the rise. Dobbs calls the hype ''outside noise'' but enjoys being part of Tennessee's resurgence under Jones.

''The biggest thing it shows is just how far we've come from when guys like me, Cam (Sutton) and Jalen (Reeves-Maybin) were freshmen,'' Dobbs said. ''There wasn't much talk about Tennessee. That's the biggest thing. It's good to see that Tennessee has definitely risen and Tennessee is back to where traditional Tennessee has been.''

Having an experienced quarterback in a league filled with unproven starters helps raise the expectations for Tennessee. The Vols have also got a 1,200-yard rusher in Jalen Hurd and defensive standouts like defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cameron Sutton.

Now, the challenge for the players is living up to the hype. So far, so good, according to Jones.

''They have not looked up,'' he said. ''They have not blinked, and they've just been focused on their own self-determination, becoming a better football player and becoming a better football team. That's really what you can do.''