HOOVER, Ala. --- Get the jokes in now, or risk losing them.
Saying Tennessee would no longer be found at the feet of its Southeastern Conference brethren and further insisting his team could be a factor in the SEC Eastern Division race, third-year Volunteers coach Derek Dooley sounded a trumpet of belief in his 2012 team here Thursday as SEC Media Days wrapped up.
Reminded he said his Vols last year could compete for the East, Dooley indicated he believes there's a much greater likelihood of that scenario this season. The Vols open Aug. 31 vs. N.C. State in Atlanta as part of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. They'll play their first SEC game, against Florida, Sept. 15 inside Neyland Stadium.
"Absolutely we can. We have a better roster than we've had since I've been here," Dooley emphasized in a smaller gathering with mostly Tennessee reporters this morning. "We're more experienced, we're deeper, we're more talented. It doesn't mean we're where we need to be. But yeah.
"Could we have competed for the East last year? Yeah, we could have. But we had some things that didn't go our way and we didn't really have a lot of depth and experience. That reared its ugly head as the season went on. We don't have those issues like we had last year going into this season."
Further, Dooley said, there's a swelling belief within the Vols that retribution could be in the offing this fall.
"It's been a tough four years in Tennessee," Dooley said. "I know, of course, the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times. But there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore."
The league, it seems, remains skeptical. The Vols were tabbed to finish fifth in the East in voting by media who cover the league and released Thursday.
Quarterback Tyler Bray, making his first Media Days appearance, believes he's got the nation's top arsenal at his disposal and the belief that anything can happen on game day.
"We've got, I think, the three best receivers in the country," said Bray, alluding to the triumvirate of Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and JuCo newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson. That's probably a biased opinion on me, but we've got the three best and I also feel like I've got the best tight end (Mychal Rivera). …
"I could care less [about being projected to finish fifth]. At the end of the day, you've got to go out there and play the ballgame. Anybody can get beat."
The bottom line entering Year Three, Dooley notes, is results.
"I'm not here to sell," Dooley said. "It's like that old song, 'A little less conversation and a little more action.' Selling isn't going to do it. It isn't going to do me any good. We've got to go out there and win."
The vibe surrounding the Vols was certainly positive Thursday at SEC Media Days. In fact, it's been good for weeks if not months. Dooley made it clear on Thursday that is his best team. It's also a team that he likes and trust. Senior linebacker Herman Lathers, who is on the team's player unity council, admits he feels like the coaching staff has entrusted the veteran leaders more to handle things internally.
"I definitely do," Lathers said. "Anytime we have an incident, the coaches come to the unity council and tell us to handle it. Most of the time we already have, but sometimes there are some little things going on we don't know about and we just handle it and get it done."
Dooley didn't dispute the notion at all Thursday, saying it's like anything with kids.
"You get to know them better and they better understand what you want so you trust them more to handle things in the locker room," Dooley said.
It's no secret that Tennessee's first game against North Carolina State on Aug. 31 in the Georgia Dome is one of the most anticipated season openers in the last several years for the Vols.
With 'hot-seat' talk surrounding Derek Dooley and pressure on the Vols to have a good start, Dooley said it's only one piece of a much larger puzzle that won't be finished after the first week of the season.
"Well, it's one out of 12. So, is it important? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No. Is it the greatest thing that ever happened if you win? No. So, you have to keep it in perspective," Dooley said. "But, it is a big game. It's an excellent team. I think they're picked to win the ACC in some of the polls. (They're) well coached, experienced and talented so it's going to be an awesome challenge and an awesome environment. That's what you come to Tennessee for."
Dooley reiterated that his Vols got off to a good start in 2011, soundly defeating Cincinnati as the Bearcats went on to have a good season. Although good starts are important, Dooley continued to say it's about the season as a whole.
"We got off to a great start last year, guys. Everybody's so worried about a great start. We strapped a 10-win team and everybody's feeling good like we're awesome," Dooley said. "It doesn't matter. You get 12 games. You're judged on 12 games. That's your body of work and that's what we're going to do."
All three Vol players were happy to represent their school on Thursday. No one was happier than Lathers. Dooley called Lathers and his return a great story in college football. Lathers, who has taken a huge leadership role in the program, had plenty of pride in representing the orange and white.
"I was excited and honored because I have been through a lot since I have been here," Lathers offered. "Being on this platform and stage, it means a lot to represent UT."