Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, of all people, started the movement in mid-November.

Others have surreptitiously made mental notes eliminating SEC East schools like South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt from contention. The rest of the thought process goes like this:

  • The Vols’ rebuilding project arguably started from a lower rung, but at least on paper, Tennessee should enter the ’15 season ahead of Florida and new coach Jim McElwain.
  • As good as Missouri has been the last two years, the team represents the least-intimidating Tigers in the SEC.
  • Georgia should be a monster, but don’t we say that every year about coach Mark Richt’s teams?
  • Why not Tennessee?

Coach Butch Jones, he of the “brick-by-brick” mantra, has noticed. Jones is optimistic, like the fans. But he’s also cautious, unlike the fans.

“As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” Jones said of the championship talk, according to Sports Illustrated. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’ve had two very, very solid, very good recruiting classes back to back, but we’re still not there yet from a competitive depth standpoint. We’re still a couple recruiting classes away.

“But that’s why you come to Tennessee — because of the expectations. We want that.”

This week’s practices have exposed the harsh reality of Jones’ rhetoric. With Jalen Hurd excluded from contact drills this spring due to offseason shoulder surgery and Alvin Kamara out with a thigh bruise, walk-on Jayson Sparks was the only healthy running back at practice Tuesday and Thursday.

Hurd and Kamara should be fine well before the Sept. 5 season opener. But it’s a glimpse at a situation Tennessee may face during the season.

No SEC team gets through a 12-game regular season without attrition. And don’t be fooled by the Vols’ depth of talent at a few positions, like receiver. The roster still is full of weak spots — quarterback, offensive line, running back, defensive tackle, secondary — where one or two injuries to significant players could result in a violent crash of talent level.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism for the Tennessee fan base. There’s the rocket scientist quarterback, the erstwhile freshman defensive end who could become one of the most recognizable and dominant defensive linemen in the country, the pack of athletic receivers, the one-two punch in the backfield and veteran linebackers Curt Maggitt and Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

The expectations game is all-important for a well-compensated college or NFL football coach, and Jones has played it masterfully. He’s raised expectations at Tennessee year after year and re-enforced a standard of excellence, pardon the cliche, while simultaneously setting the bar just low enough that the fan base — we’re talking Vols football, now — was happy and excited after a 7-6 season and a TaxSlayer Bowl win.

The 2015 season may be his biggest challenge yet. Fans feel the momentum. The team signed yet another touted recruiting class. The Vols won a bowl game for the first time in seven years. Hell, respected media members are picking Tennessee to win the SEC East.

What if the team finishes the regular season 7-5 or 8-4, and ranks just outside the Top 25? It’s a definite possibility, given the lack of depth at certain positions and the presence of Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri on the schedule.

Tennessee could shoot to maturity one year early, just like Ohio State did in 2014 when it shocked Alabama and Oregon and took down a national title. That’s not to suggest this ’15 Vols team is national championship caliber. But it’s within the realm of possibility that UT could take down the SEC East.

The team’s depth and youth, though, are concerning. It will be interesting to see the reaction from the Tennessee fan base if Jones and the Vols continue to make progress, but for the first time fail to keep pace with the invisible bar that rises every year.

It hasn’t been too difficult for Jones to restore pride to the program entering his third year. Now we’ll see if he can hoist the team back on top of the standings, or if it will take another year.