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The time is now for Butch Jones and Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Butch Jones has spent many a sleepless night to get to this point, be it recruiting, planning, watching film or simply tossing and turning.

He's admittedly not the best sleeper, which is why he's acquired the services of a sleep coach.

"They're monitoring my sleep right now," Jones said. "They've got me hooked up and everything. It's not about the quantity. It's about the quality."

So even when he's snoozing, Jones makes sure he's leaving nothing to chance. It's just like this football season, the most anticipated one on Rocky Top in nearly a decade. He knows how important it is. His players know how important it is. Anybody who's ever spent a Saturday afternoon on the banks of the Tennessee River knows how important it is.

And it starts, in earnest anyway, this weekend, when one of college football's bluebloods, Oklahoma, comes to town. The Vols, after winning so many big battles on the recruiting trail each of the last two years, get a chance to show on the field that they're ready to rejoin that fraternity.

"I know we're ready. There's no 'think' to it," Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. "We know what we're capable of."

It's not so much what Dobbs says as the way he says it. He speaks with conviction, confidence and does so in a business-like fashion.

"Very grounded," Jones said approvingly. "And that's the way our entire football team has been."

Jones has worked too feverishly to restore Tennessee to prominence to get ahead of himself now. The same goes for everybody else in the program.

But the win-starved Tennessee fans? That's a different story. They're ready to blow the roof off of Neyland Stadium on Saturday in what they're convinced will be the first of many on-the-field declarations that the Vols are officially back.

And, really, who could blame them? It's a fan base that's been divided at times, going back to Phillip Fulmer's firing in 2008. But it's also a fan base that has continued to flock to games despite all of the bad football, bad hires and bad luck.

Jones, who's gone a long way toward galvanizing that fan base, loves the passion. He embraces it. But he also winces at any mention that Tennessee is somehow all the way back, especially as the eyes of the college football world descend upon Knoxville. Hard as it is to believe — and perhaps it's not for those Vol fans who've suffered through a football version of a nuclear winter — this will be only the second time in the last eight years that two nationally ranked teams have met in Neyland Stadium.

"It's healthy for our fan base. It's healthy for our program, and it's obviously healthy for recruiting," Jones said. "But nothing changes. Your preparation doesn't change. Your practice habits don't change. You can never get outside yourself. We've prepared just like we did for any other opponent. I'm not a believer that you put more stock in one game over another.

"That's the beauty of college football. One bad day can take you from your dreams, goals and aspirations. That's what makes college football's regular season different from any other sport."

Most Tennessee fans have pointed to the opener against Cal in 2006 as the last time there was this much buzz to open the season in Knoxville. The Bears were ranked No. 9, and the Vols were coming off their first losing season in 17 years, which in hindsight might have been the beginning of the end to Fulmer's tenure. Tennessee pounced on Cal for what was an emotional 35-18 win and went on to spend a few weeks in the top 10 that season.

As fate would have it, that's the last time the Vols have appeared in the top 10, so it's been a while.

In fact, the Vols are just 2-33 in their last 35 games against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and have lost eight in a row to ranked teams. Protecting their home turf has been equally difficult, which is a must if you're going to play at an elite level. In the last five seasons, Tennessee is just 6-15 against Power 5 teams at home.

And even now, with back-to-back No. 5 recruiting classes, they're anything but a finished product. Only 18 players from Tennessee's 2013 team were on last week's travel roster in the Vols' season-opening win over Bowling Green in Nashville.

Jones points to the team that will be on the opposite side of the field Saturday as a model of what he'd like to craft in Knoxville. And that takes time and patience. Since Bob Stoops took over at Oklahoma in 1999, no Power 5 team owns more wins than the Sooners (169). There have been a few dips along the way, but Oklahoma's consistency under Stoops speaks for itself.

"Bob and what he's done there is probably one of the best illustrations that it's one thing to build a team, but it's another to build a program," Jones said.

Likewise, nobody needs to remind Tennessee's players of where they're trying to steer this program. There are reminders everywhere they look in their sparkling new football complex: the back-to-back SEC championship banners in 1997 and 1998, as well as the national championship banner in 1998. And then there are the scores of former players (Peyton Manning, Al Wilson and Jason Witten to name a few) who've come back to campus to talk to the team.

"We're building our identity as a football team, and that's every day," Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton said. "We respect and want to honor all those who came before us here and all those who made Tennessee what it is, and the way to do that is getting Tennessee back to where Tennessee should be.

"But we don't look back. What we're excited about is what's ahead of us."

Come Saturday, we start to find out if that future is now.

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