Is Tennessee's offense actually improving?

At this time last year, Tennessee was sitting at 2-3 with a loss to UCLA, two losses to SEC foes Florida and Auburn, a fairly impressive victory over a bad team (UAB), and an unimpressive win over another bad team (Northern Illinois). The hype surrounding the hire of Lane Kiffin and the Chimera and the subsequent trash-talking and chest-beating had Vol fans ready to believe 2009 would offer at least some improvement. But five games into the Lane Kiffin Era, the Vols again find themselves at 2-3 with a loss to UCLA, two losses to SEC rivals Florida and Auburn, a fairly impressive victory over a bad team (Western Kentucky), and an unimpressive win over another bad team (Ohio).

So it's all the same and only the names have changed, right? I mean, after all, the team has an identical record against nearly identical competition and Jonathan Crompton is still making poor decisions, fumbling snaps, and falling down untouched in his own backfield. Lane Kiffin therefore has utterly failed to deliver on his brash, pre-season promises, hasn't he?

Eh, not really. It's hard to see through the fog of frustration, especially when so much of that fog is inhabited by the same ghostly villains of 2008, but the numbers appear to indicate that the offense is actually improved from last season. Really. Take a look:

Category

2008

2009 Change
National
Rank
Conf
Rank
Actual National
Rank
Conf
Rank
Actual National
Rank
Conf
Rank
Actual
Rushing Offense
88
9
122.92
36
6
188.00

+52

+3
+65.08
Passing Offense
107
11
145.83
82
8
188.80
+25
+3
+42.97
Total Offense
115
11
268.75
56
6
376.80
+59
+5

+108.5

Scoring Offense
T-110
10
17.33
47
6
29.40
+63
+4
+12.07
Passing Efficiency
107
11
99.79
89
10
115.50
+18
+1
+15.71

 

Caveats: First, those numbers compare last year's entire season to the first five games of 2009, which might not be an entirely fair comparison due to the fact the latter part of the schedule always has more SEC teams, which means more and better defense, which in turn would have driven down last year's offensive numbers and should do the same this season. On the other hand, the latter half of 2008 included Wyoming and both Vanderbilt and Kentucky, which were two of our best games in 2008.

Second, Tennessee threw nine interceptions all of last season and Crompton has thrown eight already in 2009. When looking at yards gained for your own offense, you have to account for giving the ball to the defense, and the interception factor is most certainly contrary to any assertion that the passing game is improved.

But . . . with those caveats . . . the Volunteer offense appears to have improved in every major offensive category. They've made the most progress in the running game, of course, adding 65 yards per game and going from 88th to 36th nationally and 9th to 6th in the SEC. The improved running game is largely responsible for the jump from near-bottom to middle-of-the-pack in both the national and SEC rankings for total offense.

Most surprising, though, is that the passing game is marginally improved as well. The Vols have added nearly 43 yards per game and have gone from 107th to 82nd nationally and 11th to 8th in the SEC. Passing efficiency has improved the least, moving only one spot in the SEC, but it is still a move in the right direction.

No, middle-of-the-pack in the SEC isn't good enough for the storied Tennessee program, and a passing game that ranks in the 80s isn't much to celebrate, but it is improvement.

Now for a comparison of last year's players to this year's:

  2008 2009
Category Player National
Rank
Conf
Rank
Actual Player National
Rank
Conf
Rank
Actual
Rushing Arian Foster
9
51.82
Montario Hardesty
T-8
1
115.00
Passing Efficiency (Min. 15 Att./Game)  
Jonathan Crompton
91
10
114.20
Total Offense Arian Foster
22
51.82
Jonathan Crompton
92
9
178.00
Receptions Per Game Gerald Jones
16
2.73
Quintin Hancock
T-10
3.75
   
Gerald Jones
T-25
2.50
Receiving Yards Per Game Gerald Jones
22
29.36
Quintin Hancock
16
40.75

 

Again, the improvement in the rushing game really stands out here. Montario Hardesty is tied for 8th in the nation and leads the SEC in rushing yards per game. In contrast, Arian Foster was only 9th in the SEC and wasn't even ranked nationally in 2008. And yes, Jonathan Crompton is still a less-than-thrilling 10th in the SEC in passing efficiency, but the quarterback shuffle wasn't even ranked -- either nationally or in the conference -- in 2008. How does that happen? Does it really mean that at least one other SEC team had at least one backup more efficient than our triumvirate of signal-callers?

A look at the receivers is a bit troubling. Quintin Hancock ranks better in 2009 than Gerald Jones did in 2008, and Jones himself hasn't yet made any improvement on his own numbers from last year. Also, note the absence of national rankings for any of the receivers, either in 2008 or 2009.

So Tennessee's offense is improving despite the fact it's not yet translating into a greater win percentage. We've come from the back of the pack to the middle, so there's reason to believe that Lane Kiffin is progressing.

But is Kiffin doing all he can? Could he improve the offense more and quicker by making a change at QB?

Maybe, maybe not. Crompton started the first four games of 2008 before giving way to Nick Stephens, who eventually gave way to B.J. Coleman, who eventually made room for Crompton again. What effect did changing quarterbacks have on the passing game?

After opponent Passing Offense Passing Efficiency
Auburn
175.00
96.40
Northern Illinois
171.20
102.60
Georgia
177.33
106.23
Mississippi St.
171.43
105.77
South Carolina
167.78
103.78
Wyoming
162.80
98.95
Vanderbilt
149.91
96.51
Kentucky
145.83
99.79

 

The passing yards first decreased a bit against a bad team, then increased a bit against a good team, and then gradually tanked over the last five games. The passing efficiency actually got better, but not dramatically so. If you just look at the yards, you'd think that changing horses in the middle of the stream negatively affects productivity, but if you look at efficiency, you'd probably conclude that you were less likely to break your neck on the second horse. Or you might simply conclude that the coaches finally realized the passing game was broken and both the decrease in yards and increase in efficiency was a direct effect of leaning more heavily on the running game. In the end, the appeal of those stats probably lies in the eyes of the beholder, so ask Rorschach. Or Horshack, I'm not sure it matters. Perhaps Kiffin could improve the offense more and faster by switching QBs. Perhaps not. And there's the rub.

But whatever the case with the quarterbacks, the offense has improved despite the fact the Vols' winning percentage so far is identical to last year's and despite the fact the passing game still looks at times like the Keystone Kops. That stuff just makes the improvement more difficult to appreciate.

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