Tennessee's Coordinators and the Art of Adjustments

John Sommers II - Getty Images

I'm a bad college football fan. The last version of EA's NCAA Football I own is 2009, I think, and the fact that I have to think about that should tell you something. Actually, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure it's the 2009 version, because I was all excited about Jim Chaney coming into town and all disappointed that EA's playbook was basically the same thing from under Fulmer. Anyway. You might be somewhat surprised to learn that I actually really enjoyed running the ball. Like, a lot, and pretty much the only pass I'd ever use was a variant on a slant. Anyway, so I'd run Power O about 15 different times from four different formations, and then I'd see that PA Power O was set up! with little flashing lights and everything so that means I'm supposed to call it, right?

Then I call it, the QB takes 18 seconds to execute the handoff, and I get the Oregon-against-Nick-Fairley treatment. That doesn't mean it was a bad idea, though, just that HOLY COW HAND THE BALL OFF FASTER VIRTUAL JONATHAN CROMPTON. I found something on offense that worked - roughly a pro-style combination of Power O, Iso / Draw-type runs, slants, and a few balls over the top, and that was basically it. I'd mix in a few other plays per game depending on what I liked and what I was - or wasn't successful - with. (hint: play action didn't make the cut often.)

That's really all an offense is trying to do; I had a limited set of options that I was very good at, with some other stuff sprinkled around. Was it a philosophy? Nope, just a set of plays. That's about it. I was successful as long as the defense couldn't easily take away the things I was good at, which in turn put me in awkward spots, and I was in better shape once the defense started overselling to take away the things I was good at, which meant big plays ahoy.

And if you're looking for a reason why I'm not happy, it's right there in the previous paragraph.

In order for a defense to be successful taking away what an offense is good at, they have two different options:

  • They can do it with their base packages, which - if it works - means the offense is probably toast. This kind of thing is reserved for the elite defenses like Alabama's; even when Alabama blitzes, it's a safe blitz with 6 in coverage.
  • They can scheme and cheat and call blitzes to generate pressure in awkward areas and awkward ways and hope the offense isn't good enough, smart enough, or talented enough to take advantage of it.
That second option isn't going to work in conference play, and it's what we're stuck with. Offenses, when confronted with defenses that will sell out to stop something, should be (and in most cases, are) good enough to recognize two things:
  • What the defense is trying to take away, and
  • The big hole that's left as a result of the thing the defense is trying to take away
And hey look, Florida was nice enough to provide an example. I loved Tennessee's setup in the first half; Florida did one thing well on offense in the first two games of the season - block downhill. So, Tennessee set out to stop downhill runs (thanks, Daniel McCullers) - and, quite frankly, was pretty good at doing it. The problem wasn't the interior run blocking, not at first; it was the selling out to provide edge pressure - which, hey look, left giant holes on the edge. Take the Trey Burton TD (um, the first one); a Tennessee LB - Curt Maggitt, I think - sneaks up on the line right before the ball is snapped, leaving pretty much exactly the spot on the turf Burton waltzed through wide open. I'm not sure why Maggitt moved to a spot where he got himself blocked out of the play thanks to an offensive lineman already blocking someone, but I'm also not sure why Tennessee needed an edge rusher there.

That was the game, basically; Florida wanted to go downhill, Tennessee didn't want to let them, so Florida kept nibbling or hitting the edges until Tennessee forced them to respond. Tennessee in turn took off McCullers, sacrificed the interior on defense, and promptly got destroyed. Game. Tennessee sacrificed taking away Florida's bread and butter to stop what Florida was doing to open them up, at which point Florida went back to the stuff they're good at. No wonder Florida scored the last 24 points of the game.

It goes for the offense as well. When the Tennessee offense was doing well, it was balanced(!), with a combination of solid interior runs and smart passes. Would I have liked a few edge rushes? Well, sure, but not a ton of them since it's not what the offense is designed to do. That wasn't the issue as much as it was the panic and overreaction - Florida's defense took away Tennessee's bread and butter, and I'm not sure they had to try.

The good news, such as it is, is that both these problems are correctable, the offense more so. In both cases, it's a twofold process:
  • Recognize what the opposition is trying to do (or trying to limit you in doing). In some cases, it's obvious, but that isn't necessarily guaranteed. Regardless, this first step has to happen before...
  • ...a decision is made to either allow the opposition to do what they're trying to do, or to do something to force the opposition to respond. What exactly that thing is will vary widely by team and what's being taken away, but it boils down to importance. For example: if Akron chooses to not allow Tennessee to throw any screen passes, great. Don't care. If Akron chooses to sell out against the interior run? Well, that matters, but Tennessee has a built-in response loosely translated as more passing (ideally, hitting them over the top since that likely means the strong safety will have moved up).
The same thing applies to defense, but the specifics are different (and remember, it's the defense trying to take away what the offense does, not the other way around). There's a choice, though - if you're giving up something that you're uncomfortable with, and you can cover that without sacrificing your key, then you do it. On the other hand, if - for example - you're playing Alabama and you're convinced they're going to run the ball 45 times, including 30 times up the middle, and you want to stop that but AJ McCarron goes 7-for-9 for 130 and a TD in the first 20 minutes, do you want to figure out a way to stop McCarron if it means you sacrifice run defense? That's a question I'm not sure of the answer to if it's a zero-sum game, and Tennessee's defense right now is a zero-sum game. That needs to change, and it'll take time to get there. Whether that time exists is a matter of debate.

Quite frankly, the odds of this mattering against Akron are slim, but if there's going to be a chance against Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi State, or Alabama, this needs to get fixed.

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