It started, publicly, minutes after Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd came to the podium to accept his Outback Bowl MVP award.

Hurd said the Volunteers expected to return to Tampa in January 2017 — only this time for the national championship game.

The offseason and spring produced similar messages, from coach Butch Jones to team captains telling the spring game crowd to pack their bags, they’ll see them in Florida.

Question: Are you surprised at how openly the Vols are discussing such huge goals, essentially setting up the season as Tampa or bust? And are you buying or selling that the Vols can get there?

Answer: Tennessee has to open the 2016 season as the favorite to win the SEC East. Three games stand out this season: Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Two of those — Florida and Alabama — will be at home in Neyland Stadium. This year is setting up nicely for the Vols.

Right now, I’m selling the Vols as College Football Playoff contenders, but as long as UT can get to Atlanta, it obviously has a shot. I’m just not completely sold on Jones being an elite in-game coach. He’s a great CEO-type coach who’s a great recruiter, but this season will tell us all we need to know about his tenure.

— SDS co-founder Jon Cooper (@JonCooperSDS)

Answer: I don’t know that Butch Jones and Tennessee have a choice. Jones has preached patience for three years. But Tennessee arguably underachieved last year at 9-4, and definitively left wins on the field with second-half collapses. The Vols return as many starters as any power-conference team. I completely buy them as College Football Playoff contenders. Contenders, not favorites. They still have to overcome a losing streak against Florida and find a way to beat Alabama — maybe even twice.

— Editor-in-Chief Christopher Smith (@csmithSDS)

Answer: It’s not all too surprising because it’s understandable that the team would generate that much confidence after the way it ended last season on a six-game winning streak and a 45-6 thrashing of a 10-win Northwestern team.

Whether it’s the right or wrong thing to proclaim can be argued either way, but I think the coaches and players do feel like this is their year.

There really aren’t any excuses this time around if Butch Jones’ team doesn’t make the SEC Championship Game.

I’m not buying the Vols as a CFP contender right now because I think there’s a few missing pieces to their equation.

Josh Dobbs has to improve inside the pocket, and the defense needs to improve from last season against both the run (9th in the SEC) and the pass (8th in the SEC), and they’ll have to make that improvement under a first-year defensive coordinator. Plus, UT has a heck of a gauntlet in the first half of 2016 to traverse.

— News editor Talal Elsmasry (@TalalElmasrySDS)

Answer: Players talk. Players make promises, guarantees. What’s different is Jones isn’t telling them to stop. The spring game all but came with a guarantee on the back of the ticket.

The first step, obviously, is getting to Atlanta. If that doesn’t happen this season, then I’m not sure when it will. Georgia, with Jacob Eason, will be the team to beat in 2017 and 2018. (I’d add 2019, but I expect Eason to leave early and become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft.)

Everything sets up ideally for the Vols in 2016, from what they have to what others in the East don’t.

But the real reason I’m buying the playoff talk is it’s their captains who are talking. If they’re talking, they’re walking. They’re lifting, they’re sprinting, they’re studying, they’re throwing, they’re reminding, they’re searching for those 25 points … they’re leading.

This isn’t a foolish 19-year-old NBA rookie saying he’s in LeBron James’ head.

This is four of the best players in the SEC sending a message to their teammates and everybody else that they are the team to beat.

They nearly beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season. They’re certainly talented enough to end that skid this season in Knoxville. Their biggest test, I believe, will come at Texas A&M, which has as much skill as anybody in the conference.

Atlanta is the first step, but it won’t be the Vols’ final step.

— Senior editor Chris Wright (@FilmRoomEditor)