Tennessee learns you don't get rings for winning the SEC East in July

HOOVER, Ala. -- What's it like to win the SEC East in July?

Before answering, a smile crossed Jalen Reeves-Maybin's face. He and his Tennessee teammates should know.

You haven't heard? The title is already theirs -- seven weeks before the season starts.

"I guess that's what everyone tries to make it seem like," the Vols linebacker said Tuesday at the 2016 SEC Media Days. "We haven't played a game yet."

Yes, there's that, but don't tell that to the preseason magazines who have to pick somebody after almost a two-decade drought in Knoxville. Don't tell the taunters, embodied by Florida's Jalen Tabor.

"Twelve [wins] in a row against the Vols?" Tabor said on Periscope this week. "No doubt."

Therein lies a summation of Tennessee's offseason. Within a discussion of its lofty prospects, a couple of new summer activities have emerged: Picking the Vols to win the division and then completely trashing that assertion.

Because, of course.

Tennessee is deserving of the praise. They've got 19 starters returning, a load of skill players and nine wins in 2015 as sort of a warm up to this moment.

But the mocking won't stop. Can you imagine Tabor lighting up Alabama? Until Tennessee actually does it, well, they're still a nearly two-decade-old punchline.

The Vols are going on Year 19 without an SEC title. That's the longest drought in school history. Or to put it in more blunt terms, Tennessee hasn't won the league since Peyton Manning was an NFL rookie (1998).

UT is 1-17 in their last 18 against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Coach Butch Jones joked Tuesday about having the team bus to media days hijacked by Texas A&M. The Aggies got the one with air conditioning.

"We had to sweat the whole way," Jones said.

"Trying to set the tone," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin countered.

The teams play Oct. 8 in College Station, Texas.

That's the problem outside of Knoxville. It's not a lack of respect exactly -- a gaggle of magazines and analysts have to count for something. Maybe it's a lack of faith. For various reasons, it's hard to find a quorum on Tennessee. While not exactly college football's Cubs, the Vols have their doubters.

There are those 11 straight losses to Florida, the longest streak in series history. The last two have come in excruciating fashion.

The Vols blew a 9-0 lead in the fourth quarter in 2014, falling 10-9. A converted 4th-and-14 late allowed the Gators to win 28-27 last year in Gainesville, Florida.

There was a painful double-overtime loss last year to Oklahoma. The Vols led that one 17-0 in the first half.

"We didn't stay aggressive," Reeves-Maybin said. "You saw a whole mentality switch toward the end of those games."

Depending which side of the orange and white checkerboard you're on, there is a special kind of hell/pity surrounding the Vols.

"We talk about learning how to finish games, learning how to close games out ...," Jones said.

"Why is LeBron James, LeBron James? We all saw Game 7. The great players step it up and they take it over. That's what we've been talking about."

It may be only way the Vols get the Tabors off their backs. Play -- and win -- the games.

"It's not about being chatty for us. We work, we grind," Reeves-Maybin said. "Externally, it seems like that [hype exists] more than internally. You don't focus on that within our program. We haven't proclaimed it to anyone."

But who else are you going to pick in the East? Florida is still searching for an offense. Georgia's first-year coach isn't sure about his quarterback and is struggling to find a healthy tailback.

There's a division title to be won. It's July. The Vols look as good as anyone. Knoxville's been waiting a while.

Maybe hold off the parade for a few months.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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