KNOXVILLE — Barely 24 hours after the bus carrying the Tennessee football team completed the 172-mile drive down Interstate 75 following its season-ending win at Kentucky, the Volunteers collectively turned the page.
One season was over. The next one starts now.
Heading into its second season under coach Butch Jones, Tennessee appears to have had little trouble putting a disappointing finish to last season behind it, though the coach shot down the notion that it's been easy for the coaches and returning players to turn their attention to 2014.
"I know for the staff, it has not been easy, because going to a bowl game is what's expected here, and competing for championships," Jones said during his news conference Thursday. "I want disappointment. I want them to realize that it's great to be home for the holidays, but we need to go to bowl games, and I think they understand that.
"I think that temperament was set immediately following the conclusion of the Kentucky game. ... It's a new start. It's a new beginning. Team 117 has come and gone. All our focus is on Team 118 and everything that we can do in developing the leadership that it's going to take to compete at a high level -- creating competition, creating depth."
Since Tennessee wrapped up its third straight 5-7 season with a win in Lexington, the coaching staff has traversed the country on recruiting missions while players finished fall-semester final exams and headed home for the holiday break.
Team 117 faced the nation's toughest schedule based on opponent winning percentage (.658) -- a slate that included seven teams ranked at kickoff and five of the top 10 teams in the final BCS standings. Tennessee played 15 true freshmen and nine redshirt freshmen.
The Vols registered their best total rushing yardage since 2004 but failed to throw for 2,000 yards for just the third time since 1982, and a defense that was disastrous in 2012 made slight improvements.
"I thought we've taken monumental strides," Jones said, "but we're nowhere where we need to be. Losing is not an option. It will not be tolerated here at Tennessee, but there's also steps in the process.
"There are no quick fixes, and I think we all know that."
At Cincinnati, Jones' first team went just 4-8, but his second set of Bearcats won 10 games, shared the Big East title and beat James Franklin and Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl.
To orchestrate a similar turnaround at Tennessee -- against a 2014 schedule that includes trips to South Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma and games against nine teams playing in bowls this season -- Jones will need his current players to make a development leap during the offseason and a highly touted incoming recruiting class to live up to its billing right away.
"We still have a lot of work to do, and it's not going to be 100 percent corrected overnight," the coach said. "It's going to be a process, but I see the steps. I see the successful steps that are taken. I see a lot of positive things happening here, and it'll happen. Now you rejuvenate your program with this great signing class, that's going to add to the competitive makeup of your football team.
"In all my years of coaching ... this is the most excited and the most looking forward to an offseason that I can remember in a very, very long time."
There's still a very, very long time between now and Tennessee's tough 2014 opener against Utah State. For the immediate future, the returning core of players, now familiar with Jones' way of running things, have split into five groups. All the players were tested before they left for the holiday break, and they'll undergo tests to measure body fat, strength and conditioning levels to see who did or didn't work while at home. Group leaders must keep their teammates accountable.
Fourteen players from the nation's current No. 2 recruiting class will arrive for the start of the spring semester in three weeks, and the winter workout program under strength coach Dave Lawson will kick into gear.
"I do sense a hunger," Jones said. "I do sense them wanting to get back and get ready to go. I've had a number of players already say, 'Coach, I've had a great time, but I'm ready to get back.' A lot of individuals are actually coming back to Knoxville a week, week and a half early, just to get started. I do sense a lot of excitement."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...