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Rocky Top Talk 2015 Year in Review

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Our favorite stories from 2015.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So far this year Rocky Top Talk has turned in 720 stories on the Vols.  Here are 40 of our favorites.

They're listed in chronological order, tracking the year that was in Knoxville.  It follows the growing hype for football, recruiting and a new offensive coordinator, a basketball team giving its all before transition unfolded again, and all the downs and ups of Team

The stories receiving the most comments on the year usually show where conversation peaked, and to no surprise this year it was the aftermath of the Florida game.  On a personal note, the "Skipping Denial, Straight to Anger" post I wrote in the minutes after the loss, to this day, has created the most diverse set of responses I've gotten from people I know personally since we were trying to Save Bruce Pearl in the wee hours four-plus years ago.  The "One Play Away is a False Narrative" post I wrote the next day is, to this day, one of the stories I've felt best about during my time at RTT, even after such a crushing loss.

Those two and a ton of other stuff from our staff are here.  As always, it's been our pleasure to share the Vols with you this year.  Merry Christmas.

The Best & Yet to Come: Vols Trounce Iowa 45-28 - Will Shelton (January 2)

But the fact that Tennessee's best game of the year came in its last game of the year with the youngest team in the nation means things are going exactly the way you want them to if you're Butch Jones.  It means through all the bumps, bruises, injuries and disappointments, this team got better.  The freshmen weren't really freshmen by the end of the season, which means they won't really be sophomores in many ways next year.  The quarterback assumed command.  The team, through losses and in victory, matured.  And that maturation showed in big ways today.

Ranking the Early Enrollees - Michael W. Bratton (January 8)

Tennessee may have secured the most ready player in the nation to come in and run the ball in Alvin Kamara.

2015 Hype is Here for Vols Football - Incipient_Senescence (January 13)

The Vols won't be getting national championship talk in 2015--an offensive line that was nothing short of abysmal in 2014 and a coaching staff that hasn't ever won at an elite level will keep those discussions far away--but expect them to be a trendy dark horse pick to win the SEC East, and expect talk of win totals that far surpass anything Tennessee has hit in recent memory.

Tennessee 74 Arkansas 69: The Bounce Back - Will Shelton (January 13)

Something you may have forgotten in the fury of the ending: Tennessee trailed for 63 seconds in this game.

Bruce Pearl Returns to Tennessee: The Circus is Back in Town - Will Shelton (January 30)

When people remember Pearl in Knoxville they talk most fondly of the 1 vs 2 showdown with Memphis in 2008, or two years later when Pearl took a team that just lost four players to suspension and beat #1 Kansas, eventually leading them to the program's first ever Elite Eight.  But for those of us that were watching from the beginning, that first year holds a special place in our collective memory.  It remains the most surprising season of any sport on campus in the last 30 years, if not more.  In 2005 Tennessee wasn't just bad, they created apathy in their own house.  In 2006, one coach and several Chris Lofton threes later, they were a two seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Time Stands Still:  Tennessee 71 Auburn 63 - Chris Pendley (January 31)

Tennessee isn't good enough right now to place extra emphasis on specific wins. Right now, anything is a plus. That being said: this one felt good at the end, as Tennessee improves to 13-7 overall, 5-3 in the SEC, and if you're going to talk postseason, this game was a must-win. Also, if you're going to talk avoiding awkward narrative situations, this game was also a must-win. Fortunately, crisis averted.

Did the 2014 Vols Underachieve? - Hunter Turner (February 2)

No, at least not according to the advanced stats. In fact, Tennessee was one of only four teams to finish with the exact number of wins predicted, along with Fresno State, Virginia Tech, and BYU.

National Signing Day FAQ - Hunter Turner (February 4)

How excited should I be?

Very.

DeBord it is for Vols - Incipient_Senescence (February 5)

But the biggest positive from a program perspective is that Butch Jones is running his own ship. DeBord was never going to be a popular hire. He wasn't an exciting name in 2008, and he's not exciting now. But if you want a program driven by what excites the fans, you get Lane Kiffin. This is not a hire that the AD forced on Jones because he needed goodwill. This is Jones running his own program. And when you hire a head coach, you want him running his own program. If the AD is micromanaging, that's bad. If the coach is afraid of the fans, that's bad.

Cornerstone Recruiting: The Importance of Butch Jones' First Two Months - Will Shelton (February 10)

But four of the players Tennessee will need the most this fall are juniors, meaning some of Butch's most meaningful work in recruiting (and clearly player development) came in the weeks leading up to February 6, 2013.  We were caught up in missing on Vonn Bell, but what Jones did in a very short amount of time has a chance to make the biggest difference for Tennessee in its most pivotal year.

Tennessee 76 Vanderbilt 73 (OT): Our State - Will Shelton (February 12)

If you play the last 30 seconds of regulation ten times, Vanderbilt wins nine of them.

Harrison Down:  Lady Vols 72 Kentucky 58 - Chris Pendley (February 15)

Okay, so that one thing we weren't going to talk about--what happens if anyone from the Lady Vols goes down--happened. Isabelle Harrison re-injured her knee early in the second half.

Will Kentucky Be the Best Team to Ever Play in Thompson-Boling? - Will Shelton (February 16)

So even if you think things might go poorly for the Vols tomorrow night, there's a part of you that might want to see this thing, to say you were there if indeed the Cats do finish 40-0.  Will they be the best to ever play at Thompson-Boling?  Here are nine other candidates, in chronological order:

Tennessee Teams With The Most Recruiting Stars - Will Shelton (February 25)

Here are the total number of stars for the starting 22 for each of the last ten Tennessee teams.

Josh Richardson: The Volunteer - Will Shelton (March 6)

His 19.3 points in those four NCAA Tournament games last year is the second best average in UT tournament history for those who appeared in more than two games, trailing only Reggie Johnson's 19.8 in five games in the late 70's and early 80's. That means Josh Richardson was a more consistent scorer in the NCAA Tournament than any of Bruce Pearl or Cuonzo Martin's players.

The Culture Question: Tennessee Athletic Department Accused of Influencing Student Discipline - Will Shelton (March 7)

But if "student development" is the real concern - or I would say personal development, human being development - the culture in which that development is taking place must be rightfully questioned.

SEC Tournament Tennessee 67 Vanderbilt 61: The Road Home - Will Shelton (March 12)

The Dores were shooting an other-worldly percentage from the arc coming into the SEC Tournament.  Tonight they went 6 of 26 (23.1%), the worst they've shot in SEC play this year.  At the seven minute mark the Vols were 3 of 20 from the arc (15.0%).  They would hit four of five in the last seven minutes.  I don't know.  I just kept turning the volume up.

Bruce, Cuonzo, and Donnie:  One Year Later - Will Shelton (March 20)

But Bruce Pearl built an expectation here, and Cuonzo was able to continue that.   I believe Donnie Tyndall could continue moving Tennessee forward, but he can't recruit in the present and may lose the opportunity to do so in the future.  One year later, we are in some ways still in limbo, still waiting to see who our head coach will be next year, and still waiting to see if Tennessee Basketball can move forward.

Backed Against The Wall:  Lady Vols 73 Gonzaga 69 (OT) - Chris Pendley (March 29)

Someone needs to give the Lady Vols' strength and conditioning coach a raise, or at the very least steak dinners for a week.

Tennessee Hires Rick Barnes - Will Shelton (March 31)

To be truly successful over multiple seasons in college basketball, you need The Right Guy at The Right Time.  It's a tricky marriage, because you always want to believe the coach you have is The Right Guy, but sometimes The Right Time is the more difficult variable.

Dobbs & Guarantano Provide Hope at Quarterback for the Vols - Nathanael Rutherford (July 9)

But for the first time in several years, the Tennessee Volunteers have a bright outlook at quarterback. In fact, it may be the brightest it's ever been for the Vols.

The Idiot Optimist's Guide to the 2015 Season - Will Shelton (August 17)

My wife has removed all the razors from our home, not because she fears me harming myself after all these years of struggle, but because she believes I will shave my eyebrows off.  Gotta give her credit for being one step ahead on that one.  I told her she's getting one percent better every day, but I don't think she took it the way coach meant it.

Anonymous Confessions of a Lunatic Fan - Joel Hollingsworth (August 27)

The truth is that once more of these demands are met, my lunatic friend will likely use the occasion to create a new list of unreasonable demands. But Job One is to get the kids to experience the magic and to give them reasons to believe that their father hasn't been clinically insane this entire decade by sitting in the basement making himself miserable and sustaining himself on hope fumes. I'm not talking about me, you understand. It's for my lunatic friend.

Bob Stoops:  "We've Been On This Stage Before." - Will Shelton (September 7)

The stage they'll know, and know it far better than Tennessee.  But the audience will be new territory, larger and louder than anything they've faced yet.  There is a noise 102,455 can make that 85,000 simply cannot.

We Know Heartbreak: Oklahoma 31 Tennessee 24 (2OT) - Incipient_Senescence (September 12)
As has been the case for the rest of the decade so far, heartbreak continues to be a Tennessee way of life.
A Field Guide to Hunting Reptiles - Will Shelton (September 25)

Some will say the Vols are snakebit, and especially against the Gators.  And others will say the Vols have gotten what they themselves have earned.  Either way, what's the most important thing about killing a snake?

You make absolutely sure it's dead.

"I'm pretty sure I got him," is not an advisable sentence.  You don't do pretty sure.  You don't whack it in the head a few times and then reach to take it to show and tell.  You kill it, then you kill it again, then you kill it a third time.  You make absolutely sure.

So right now, Butch Jones is getting ready to stand in front of a microphone and a world of questions.  Here's my advice, whatever it's worth:  apologize and own it.  Tennessee and Butch Jones have a lot of football left together.  This is the very best way forward from the very worst loss two weeks after the very worst loss at the end of eight years of very worst losses.
We’re at a point when Things Need To Change, not in the huge LET’S FIRE EVERYBODY sense but from a "hey maybe being aggressive a little bit might actually help you win close games" sense. We’re staring at two losses where literally, what, changing five plays to be more aggressive across two games might mean Tennessee is 4-0? Something like that? That’s five plays out of roughly 400 (maybe 360 if you just count regulation), and yes, that includes defense. It’s not a big change.
"One Play Away" is a False Narrative - Will Shelton (September 27)
Tennessee hadn't blown a two possession lead in the fourth quarter in almost 30 years.  Butch Jones has done it three times in the last dozen games.
"I choose to look at it (like), hey, we're a couple of plays away from being a top 15 kind of program. And from where we were two years ago, guys, it's night and day. I think we're in a very positive place and I think Butch is doing a really good job."
Tennessee Offense:  Mistaken Identity? - Will Shelton (October 4)

But maybe this was the plan.  Not the receivers part, but the taking no chances downfield and relying on the ground game part.  Maybe they looked at what they had on the offensive line, had uncertainties about what Dobbs could do downfield, and then looked at Dobbs' feet, Hurd, Kamara, and a once-healthy defense, and said, "We can win this year playing this way."  Don't take many chances in the passing game.  Use tempo and grind away.  Win field position, turnovers, and special teams.

And the Vols are doing all of those things.  And they have almost been enough to be undefeated.  Almost.

Tennessee 38 Georgia 31: The Power of We - Will Shelton (October 11)
On Vol Network post-game, when thanking the fans, Butch Jones said something to the effect of, "We've been through a lot together these past few weeks."  Today wasn't the first and won't be the last word on Butch Jones, Mike DeBord, Josh Dobbs, or anyone else.  It will stand as the current, most powerful word in a conversation that desperately needed it.  But with the university having already made a long-term commitment to its head coach, Tennessee and its fans needed this win to serve as a reminder that the most important word in that sentence is, "together."  We have hurt together plenty this year.  Tonight, we celebrate together.  And in showing mental toughness and getting down the field to win at the end of the game today, hope will grow once again that we are going somewhere good.  Together.
Who is the Vols' Best Receiver? - Incipient_Senescence (October 19)
Theoretically, Tennessee has a ton of talent in the receiving corps. And for the entire summer and probably the first month of the season, the assumption from Vols fans has seemed to be that if Mike DeBord calls passes and Josh Dobbs puts them on target, production will come. But after 2.5 years since the departure of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and no real breakthroughs in the passing game, it's time to starting asking where that production is coming from. Does Tennessee have a reliable target? Is there a player that can step-up and take the mantle of go-to receiver, or are the Vols going to continue to mix and match and hope that two catches a game from six different receivers will be enough to keep the offense moving?
A Vols team that has done a great job all season of minimizing penalties and turnovers and capitalizing on terrific special teams play gave up a 99-yard fumble return for a touchdown and a punt return to boot. The Vols cannot afford that kind of nonsense in a game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The Good Hurt - Will Shelton (October 25)
Tennessee wanted to get from Point A to Point B this fall.  And what I think is happening here is we're realizing this team is going to find itself at Point A.5.

For most of the last decade or more, an early season loss to the Gators has presaged a terrible, no-good, very bad season for the Vols, and Tennessee's 28-27 loss to Florida this year could be considered more of the same.

Except that it's not true. For Tennessee to complete the rebuilding project Butch Jones started in 2013 and return to annual contender status, it's significantly more important for the Vols to defeat Georgia on an annual basis.

Why?

Recruiting.

What We Can Be - Will Shelton (November 30)
Not only is Tennessee's +8.4 third best in the league this year, it is the highest scoring differential the Vols have posted in league play since 2003.

To begin the season, we had a few different groupings. First up were cupcakes Western Carolina and North Texas. Next was the Vanderbilt, Kentucky grouping, and we thought that Bowling would be closer to them than the first group. After that were South Carolina and Florida, who we considered to be more difficult than Kentucky and Vandy, but still probably not very good and therefore beatable. Then we had the coin flips -- Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas -- followed by probably-unbeatables Georgia and Alabama with some distance between them.

So how did it all shake out?

Butch Jones and Expectations - Incipient_Senescence (December 2)
In Butch Jones' three years here, Tennessee has been about where they were expected to be. They've done a bit better than expected as sizable favorites and modest underdogs and a bit worse than expected as sizable underdogs and in tossup games. But on the whole, they've been what we thought they were.
Butch Jones' Three Year Report Card - RTT Staff (December 14)
While staff opinions diverge on some of the finer details, there is larger consensus about what areas are strengths and which areas are weaknesses. And there is consensus, at least among the RTT staff, about the overall performance of Jones and his staff through three years: it's a solid B--good, but not great.