The Vols may or may not beat Georgia, but must do a better job maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses the rest of the way home.
There's been a lot of woe is us around here this week, and no doubt some of it has been merited. Some of us, including me, are of the opinion these Vols will have a better chance against Alabama than they will tomorrow simply because of the matchups; Team 117 just doesn't seem to be built for the kind of boat race Georgia not only prefers, but executes without discrimination. The only team to hold the Dawgs under 35 in their last 10 games was your 2012 National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide...and Georgia got 28 on them and was one play from 35 and much more.
Anything can happen, and the Dawgs could be emotionally vulnerable after a ridiculous September put them through the spiritual wringer. But even if the Vols don't beat Georgia (and even if you don't get to see Riley Ferguson), remember the goals for Butch Jones, Year One are still fully intact: get bowl eligible, and get the one win that makes everyone believe. Saturday is another chance to get that W...but if it's not this time, it could still be later in the month.
To achieve those goals of six wins, one big one - whether tomorrow or elsewhere - Tennessee has to do a better job maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. We've seen this team in five games now, and while a quarterback change could affect some of this, their identity is beginning to take shape. The hope continues that if this team stays healthy, it will be playing better football in November than September. What will that better football look like?
1. Run/Pass Ratio
The Vols are 35th nationally in rushing offense (215.4 yards per game), and 16th nationally with 5.52 yards per carry. That stat includes Nathan Peterman's three carries for -12 yards; Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane have combined for 5.98 yards per carry. As we thought, the run game is clearly the strength of this team, no matter who's playing quarterback.
So how have the Vols been calling plays so far this season?
- Austin Peay (first half only): 28 run, 13 pass
- Western Kentucky: 45 run, 19 pass
- Oregon: 38 run, 29 pass
- Florida: 23 run, 34 pass
- South Alabama: 37 run, 36 pass
Against Florida a lot of those passes came late in the game with the Vols trying to get downfield. The thought, we think, against South Alabama was Mike Bajakian trying to get Justin Worley
comfortable. But when Tennessee can get away with it, their ratios should look much more like what we saw against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky. Can the Vols run the ball that effectively against Georgia? Butch Jones has repeatedly stressed playing fast, and you can play fast and run, but is that the best strategy against the Dawgs and the rest of the SEC schedule? This leads us to...
2. Do you try to win a shootout or take the air out of the balloon?
In the future, I think we know how Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian are going to answer this question. But right now? We've only really seen the Vols slow down once, in the second half of the Western Kentucky game, and it was super effective. But this season, would Tennessee do themselves a favor by slowing things down?
If you're going to play fast, you can't go three and out. And Tennessee has had a problem with third down offense this season. The Vols are 25 of 60 (41.6%), 59th nationally. But take away UT's 7 of 11 performance against Austin Peay, and you've got 18 of 49 (36.7%), a percentage that would rank 87th nationally.
Playing fast is also an effort to produce big plays, which would certainly be necessary in a shootout. But the Vols have been largely unable to produce big plays: UT has just 57 plays of 10+ yards in five games, good for 89th nationally. 30 of those plays have come on the ground, meaning UT has just 27 pass plays of 10+ yards this season, 105th nationally.
Maybe more big plays are out there against Georgia, maybe not. But if you can't execute on third down and you can't go downfield, maybe take your foot off the gas and get back to grinding teams to death with your massive offensive line and capable tailbacks, and keep your defense more rested and ready.
3. Red Zone Defense: Field Goals and Turnovers
Here's something Butch Jones/John Jancek teams have been historically good at, and the '13 Vols have been no exception. The bad news: opponents have been in the red zone 24 times this year, 119th nationally. The good news: they've only scored 12 touchdowns. The 50% red zone TD's allowed number puts the Vol defense 22nd nationally. Bend, don't break.
Georgia is going to get their points and yards against the Vol defense. Can Team 117 stay strong inside the 20, hold the Bulldogs to three or force more turnovers, and give the offense a chance? Teams playing with a disadvantage in talent, which UT certainly is against top-tier SEC competition, have to be good in this metric to give themselves a chance. So far, so great for the Tennessee defense. Can they keep it up? History points to yes; we'll find out, because we won't play a better offense the rest of the way home. However, UGA has only scored 16 touchdowns on 24 red zone attempts. Granted, they often don't need the red zone to score...but they've been vulnerable there before.
4. Take advantage of turnovers
There's no question the defense is better this year, and along with red zone numbers, they've been exceptional on a national level when it comes to forcing turnovers. The Vols have 15 in five games, an astounding three per Saturday, and only two teams have more on the year. But what have the Vols done with those 15 turnovers:
- Austin Peay, Daniel Hood INT, Offense at AP 25: Touchdown
- Austin Peay, Malik Foreman INT, Offense at UT 10: Punt
- Western Kentucky, Jusitn Coleman pick six
- Western Kentucky, Cameron Sutton pick six
- Western Kentucky, Dontavis Sapp fumble, Offense at WKU 28: Field Goal
- Western Kentucky, Max Arnold fumble, Offense at WKU 12: Touchdown
- Western Kentucky, Brent Brewer INT, Offense at WKU 22: Touchdown
- Western Kentucky, Brian Randolph INT, Offense at UT 18: Punt (blocked)
- Western Kentucky, Brian Randolph INT, Offense at UT 20: Touchdown
- Florida, Punt snap fumble, Offense at FLA 15: Fumble
- Florida, Devaun Swafford pick six
- Florida, Daniel McCullers fumble, Offense at FLA 38: Punt (4th and 32)
- South Alabama, LaDarrell McNeil INT, Offense at USA 23: Field Goal
- South Alabama, Brent Brewer INT, Offense at USA 35: Interception
- South Alabama, Brian Randolph INT, Offense at UT 20: time expired
After the bonanza against Western Kentucky and an o-fer against Oregon, in the last two games the Vol offense has gotten the ball after a turnover inside the opponent's 40 four times...and scored three points. Opportunities against great teams are few and far between; the Vols got several against Florida and we all know what happened. Against South Alabama Tennessee had plenty of chances to extend the lead, but failed. If Georgia, or South Carolina, or Alabama, or anyone else is good to us, we HAVE to take advantage. We need all the help we can get. We have to stop being so helpful in return.
5. Quarterback Play
Because we can't write about the Vols without discussing this.
The clock is ticking on Justin Worley, no doubt. Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs
are getting closer every day. Worley has to know, no matter how insulated he may or may not be from the media and the impatient Vol faithful, that he has two options: get better, or get left behind.
We've seen quarterbacks do amazing and unexpected things against Georgia before. Freshman Erik Ainge went into Athens and left with a victory over #3 Georgia and the SEC East title secure. Heath Shuler made his second career start against a loaded Dawgs team in 1992 and gave the Vols a classic 34-31 win. And I'm not sure I've ever been more surprised than in 2009 when Jonathan Crompton
transformed from active liability to real live SEC threat.
We don't need Justin Worley to become a hero. We do need him to do these little things - take care of the football, take advantage of opportunities the defense gives us - and we need the offense to help him as well. The Vols have to run the football effectively to stay ahead of the chains, so when third downs come they're manageable. And the playcalling can't ask Worley to win this week, or next week, or beyond. If the Vols play to their strengths, maybe Worley and these young receivers can still be a positive compliment to those strengths, especially when not playing an elite defense this time around.
Georgia is favored and rightfully so. We'll buckle our chin straps and see what happens. But even if the big win doesn't come tomorrow, Tennessee has to continue to do the things it can to build a positive identity and play its best football going forward. This team has done some good things that have gotten a little buried under too much negativity and the weight of five years. But if we keep doing those things, play to and develop our strengths, more good things are going to come to light, and moments will be there to be seized.
Let's go play.