HOOVER, Ala. — Hope springs eternal at SEC Media Days. That was certainly the case with Tennessee contingent Tuesday.

“Really close,” linebacker Daniel Bituli said when asked how close the Vols are to competing at a championship level.

Most would disagree. One would think that simply having a winning season and making a bowl game would be something to be proud of in 2019.

“We’ll definitely get to a bowl game,” linebacker Darrell Taylor said. “That’s not a thing.”

Actually, that would be a thing.

The Vols have missed out on a bowl trip each of their past two seasons and have missed a bowl game 5 of the past 8 seasons. Sure, the schedule is markedly easier this year, but there’s no guaranteed December trip for the Vols as they head into Jeremy Pruitt’s second season as a head coach.

As for competing at a championship level, that would certainly be a “thing.” The Vols are expected to be picked 4th or 5th in the SEC East by the media attending SEC Media Days. The official votes will be released Friday, but Taylor isn’t concerned about preseason predictions by a bunch of sportswriters.

“We won’t worry about responding,” Taylor said. “We’ll just do what we have to do to be successful every week.”

Given the rather optimistic nature of the two UT defenders on Tuesday, it was only natural to ask quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, whom everyone would expect to be a leader on the team, what he thought about Taylor’s prediction.

“No, that’s not for me,” Guarantano said. “D.T. is a little crazy. I definitely love the confidence though. I appreciate my teammate for that.”

Guarantano went on to say the usual — that he and his teammates were focused on getting better every day and not concerned about the longterm results. However, he admitted it was hard not to think about the potential the future could hold.

“Absolutely, of course,” the junior said. “You grow up thinking about SEC championships and national championships and all those types of things and those kinds of awards. It’s natural to, but we just have to focus and we know what our main goal is.”

If the Vols can indeed compete for a championship or, at least, a bowl game, several things have to happen. First, UT needs to show improvement in strength and conditioning. After several changes in that department, the Vols finally have had some consistency. Craig Fitzgerald is wrapping up his second offseason as the head strength and conditioning coach.

“Being comfortable is a very big part of it,” Guarantano said. “Going into this offseason, we had a really good feeling for coach Fitz. … We knew what the expectations were and we were able to learn from some of the things last year. Just being able to get into this full offseason knowing that these guys were around really helped us a lot.”

Said Taylor, “We’re in so much better condition than we were last year. Our strength level is going up through the roof. A lot of guys are lifting heavy weights in our weight room and I think a lot of guys are moving a lot faster on the field.”

Second, the Vols have to be more cohesive on offense than they were last season. It has been widely reported that Pruitt and former offensive coordinator Tyson Helton didn’t agree often enough last year. After Helton became the head coach at Western Kentucky, the Vols re-hired Jim Chaney from Georgia.

“Really, we have an identity now,” Guarantano said. “I think that our head coach, our offensive coordinator and our offensive staff is really doing a good job with working with us and trying to get the most out of us.”

Lastly, the Vols have to prove competent on the offensive line. That won’t be easy. UT’s offensive line will be young and inexperienced. How can Guarantano help them manage the storm?

“Take them out to some dinners. Be nice to them,” he said with a sly grin. “Nah, I’m just kidding, definitely some extra film study. We have some young guys, but I think the older guys are definitely doing a great job helping them. It’s really been very nice to have some of these guys asking me for extra help. I’m always available for them and they know that.”

If those 3 things happen — and some other necessary improvements — the sky is the limit for the Vols. At least according to Taylor.

“I think we’re as close as we’ve ever been to competing at the highest level,” Taylor said, “because we have Jeremy Pruitt and our coaching staff behind us and we have a lot of new players that are ready to work and put in a lot of work to make it to where we want to go.”

If confidence can result in wins, then it’s time for Tennessee fans to begin booking those December rooms in Atlanta.