The Vols began the 2015 season ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll and ended the regular season ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25 Poll. But the moments in-between are what define the 2015 Vols.
Tennessee didn’t last the whole season in the top 25 rankings, and it’s how the Vols fell out and consequently were able to get back in the rankings that have much of the fan base split on how to view this season. The Vols finished the 2015 regular season with an 8-4 record, easily its best record since the 2007 team finished the regular season with a 9-3 mark. But all four of Tennessee’s losses were one-possession games. In fact, the Vols had the lead at one point in every single game they played this season, and their four losses came by a combined 17 points. The Vols were literally a handful of plays away from being true competitors for the SEC East crown and possibly a Playoff berth.
But, to Tennessee’s credit, they didn’t let those losses derail them entirely and collapse like the 2012 Derek Dooley-led Vols squad did. A downturn in the level of competition after the Alabama game helped the Vols end the 2015 regular season on a 5-game winning streak that was capped off by a 53-28 dismantling of Vanderbilt. The season has ended on a positive note, and the Vols are now back in the good graces (for the most part) of the national media, and the hype train for 2016 is already starting.
Because of the nearly polar opposite outcomes of Tennessee’s first and second halves of the season, two narratives have emerged describing the Vols’ 2015 season. The season is being viewed by some as a “season that could have been,” a lost season that could have been Tennessee’s return to national prestige. Others, however, choose to look more at the last half of the season and applaud the resiliency of the Vols who were able to overcome disappointing losses early in the schedule and salvage the season and count it as a success.
Both narratives, however, have their own merit.
The Vols were extremely close to having a very special season this year. A couple different possessions here or there and the Vols are easily a two-loss team to end the season and potentially playing for the SEC Championship on Saturday. Tennessee stumbled out to a 2-3 record after gut-wrenching losses to Oklahoma and Florida followed by a lackluster performance against Arkansas that sent Vol fans to the lowest point they were all season.
Luckily, the Vols saved themselves and defeated then No. 19 Georgia a week later. After falling behind 24-3, the Vols completed a furious comeback to take a 31-24 lead, let Georgia tie it up, took the lead again 38-31 in the fourth quarter, watched Georgia drop the game-tying touchdown pass late in the game, and celebrated after safety Brian Randolph broke up the last pass of the game in the end zone.
Tennessee had a bye week following the win and played Alabama in its next game. The Vols had a lead against the Tide in the fourth quarter, but then failed to seal the deal once again. Tennessee was able to close out the remaining season without a loss, but the damage had already been done.
Three of Tennessee’s four losses were by less than a touchdown. The Vols lost to two teams in the Playoff mix as of now, the SEC East champions, and a resurgent Arkansas squad. All four of Tennessee’s losses were winnable, and the Vols had all four in their grasp at one point. Poor coaching choices, lack of execution, and bad luck all led to 2015 being a lost season for the Vols in these fans’ eyes.
Or, as other’s would say, the first half of the season merely brought the team together and galvanized a youthful Vols squad to realize their potential and close out the season strong.
Yes, the Vols had one of the most heartbreaking beginnings to a season in recent memory, but the ending was also the strongest any Tennessee team has had in quite some time. The Vols have their first 5-game winning streak since 2007, their most wins in a season since 2007, and appear to have the most talent on the roster since, you guessed it, 2007.
The Vols may not have looked their best in wins over South Carolina and North Texas, but Tennessee crushed Kentucky and Vanderbilt in ways that hearkened back to the 1990’s and beat Missouri for the first time in program history. The Vols also defeated Georgia for the first time since 2009 earlier in the season, and the close losses, while painful, were a sign of progress for a program that had been blown out by ranked teams far too often over the last half decade.
Despite the disappointment of the early season, the 2015 Tennessee season was, in fact, a success to these fans. Butch Jones has gone from five wins in his first season to six wins in the regular season of his second year to eight in this third. That kind of progress is the reason why many believe the 2015 season is a success.
It’s true, Tennessee’s 2015 season has been its most successful venture since the end of the Phillip Fulmer era. But it will also forever be plagued by what could have been from the early portion of the season. That blend of success and disappointment is why the view of the Vols’ 2015 season will always be two-sided.