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10 Questions for 2012 #3: How good does the defense have to be?

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The most aggressive trend the Vols will almost certainly go against this fall is the direct relationship between team success and total defense in the SEC. Here are the top defenses (yards allowed per game) in the SEC in the last few years:

  • 2011: Alabama (12-1), LSU (13-1), South Carolina (11-2), Georgia (10-4), Florida (7-6)
  • 2010: Alabama (10-3), Florida (8-5), LSU (11-2), Georgia (6-7), Arkansas (10-3)
  • 2009: Alabama (14-0), Florida (13-1), South Carolina (7-6), Ole Miss (9-4), Tennessee (7-6)
  • 2008: Alabama (12-2), Tennessee (5-7), Florida (13-1), South Carolina (7-6), Ole Miss (9-4)
  • 2007: LSU (12-2), Auburn (9-4), Georgia (11-2), Vanderbilt (5-7), Mississippi State (8-5)

Of the top five defenses in the last five years, only the Clawfense Vols and a Vanderbilt team missed a bowl game. Sixteen of them won nine or more games. And nine of the league's ten BCS representatives in the last five years are on this list.

It tends to be a pretty good rule that the best teams in this league have the best defenses. But there are exceptions, because you know the one BCS team that's not on this list? Your 2010 National Champions.

Here are a few of the good SEC teams in this same span that weren't so hot defensively:

  • 2011 Arkansas: 11-2, 438.1 ypg offense (1st), 362.8 ypg allowed defense (9th)
  • 2010 Auburn: 14-0, 499.2 ypg offense (1st), 368.4 ypg allowed defense (9th)
  • 2008 Georgia: 10-3, 426.0 ypg offense (2nd), 312.0 ypg allowed defense (6th)
  • 2007 Tennessee: 10-4, 401.5 ypg offense (5th), 403.3 ypg allowed defense (11th)
(Fascinating to note that the East Division Champion '07 Vols were actually outgained on the season by 25 yards. 36.2% of those yards allowed came in UT's four losses, where we were outgained 1999 to 1385, plus another 564 in four overtimes in Lexington.)

You almost always need a great defense to win a championship; other than Auburn in 2010, every SEC BCS Champion has been a tremendously strong defensive football team.

But do you always need a good defense to be a good team? Or could the 2012 Vols turn a great offense and an adequate defense into a good season?

Let's not use 2010 Auburn as a case study, because Cam Newton tends to make them a bit of an anomaly.

2008 Georgia feels like a bit of a reach being that they were the preseason #1 and all, but consider that they did have NFL weapons on offense (Stafford, Moreno, Green) and a defense that turned out to be a total liability. They share a trait with last year's Arkansas squad: they were simply unable to compete against the best of the best. The '08 Dawgs and the '11 Razorbacks were extraordinarily prolific offenses...but against great defenses, they took the fall:

  • 2008 Georgia vs #6 Alabama: 41-30 L, 324 yards (274 pass, 50 rush)
  • 2008 Georgia vs #1 Florida: 49-10 L, 398 yards (292 pass, 106 rush)
  • 2011 Arkansas at #1 Alabama: 38-14 L, 226 yards (209 pass, 17 rush)
  • 2011 Arkansas at #1 LSU: 41-17 L, 254 yards (207 pass, 50 rush)

The 2012 Vol offense has extraordinary potential, but today on July 27 I'm not about to tell you that they'll be more productive than either of these two units...and both were completely destroyed by great defenses. So history suggests that unless you've got Cam Newton, in this league you're just not beating some teams with offense alone.

For Tennessee to have a successful season, the defense has to be good enough. Good enough to avoid games like '08 Georgia played against Georgia Tech, losing 45-42 despite 488 yards of offense. Good enough to not demand perfection from your quarterback. And especially if the Vols can't run the football again (more on that next week), good enough to make up the difference.

Last year the Vols weren't terrible - 340.5 ypg allowed, 7th best in the league, 27th nationally - but between multiple 4th and 1 stops against Cincinnati and Eric Gordon's overtime pick six against Vanderbilt, the defense simply wasn't a factor.

A huge chunk of that was turnovers forced; the Vols took the ball away just 18 times last year, tied for 91st nationally. We've also discussed in detail UT's inability to sack the quarterback. Turnovers and sacks are a defense's two best friends, and we absolutely have to have more of them this season. The hope continues to be that a more prolific offense will allow for a more aggressive defense, because why not blitz when you know your offense is just going to take it down and score again anyway? I think all of us will be much more okay with greater risk/reward than just crossing our fingers and hoping to get off the field; it's much easier for me to shrug off a big play and/or chalk it up to youth when you've seen that same defense make a big play earlier in the game.

Last year teams like Alabama and Arkansas lit us up, sure. That was a talent issue. But what really hurt Tennessee's defense last year was depth, which turned into an inability to get off the field. LSU (383) and South Carolina (313) didn't put up the sort of numbers that made you think poorly of the defense, but they both completely took charge of the game in the second half with extremely long drives requiring little more than handoffs. LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, and Arkansas all converted at least half of their third downs against UT, combining to go 28 of 53 (52.8%). The Vol defense was better on third down earlier in the year (Cincinnati 5 of 12, Florida 4 of 13, Georgia 3 of 12), but bent far too often as things progressed. All told the Vols allowed opponents to convert on third down 38.89% of the time, 57th nationally and 9th in the SEC. Tennessee also broke completely on too many big plays: the Vols allowed 14 plays of 40+ yards in 2011, besting only Ole Miss in the league.

We're not asking for a shutdown defense. We're just asking for improvement. More turnovers, more sacks, fewer third down conversions, fewer big plays allowed. It has to start there, and I think it can.

The biggest piece of this puzzle is that the Vols are transitioning to a 3-4 defense with a new defensive coordinator. That means there will be steep growing pains early on, and an NC State team with a 3,000 yard passer may not be our best friend on August 31. We'll have more specifically on the 3-4 in a forthcoming magazine excerpt, but for now let's take a look at the other team on our list the 2012 Vols could most closely resemble: the 2007 Vols.

Was Tennessee's young defense bad early on in '07? You bet:

  • Cal: 45 points, 471 yards (241 pass, 230 rush), 7.2 yards per play
  • Florida: 59 points, 554 yards (299 pass, 255 rush), 8.5 yards per play
The best news here is that NC State isn't as good as that Cal team, and Tim Tebow isn't playing in Gainesville anymore. That was a much steeper challenge than what the 2012 Vols will see in their first three games, both in hostile environments on a stage our defense simply wasn't ready for. Remember, three freshmen (Eric Berry, Brent Vinson, Dennis Rogan) played significant snaps in the secondary, and sophomores Rico McCoy and Dan Williams were a big part of the plan as well. The '12 Vol defense may not be ready for NC State either, but will hopefully play well enough to turn the kind of performance UT's offense put up in Berkeley into a win instead of a loss.

But the key word for the 2007 defense was improvement:

  • Georgia: 14 points, 243 yards (174 pass, 59 rush), 4.3 yards per play
  • Arkansas: 13 points, 289 yards (162 pass, 127 rush), 4.4 yards per play
  • Vanderbilt: 24 points, 270 yards (139 pass, 131 rush), 4.0 yards per play
In the first two examples, the Vol defense played absolutely out of their minds and completely shut down two really good offenses and one Heisman candidate. In the third example, the defense bailed out a stagnant offense and kept us in the game against an inferior opponent, something that we could easily need again this year.

Note that with a young team, growth often resembles a roller coaster, because we also had these two performances later in the year:

  • Alabama: 41 points, 510 yards (363 pass, 147 rush), 6.1 yards per play
  • South Carolina: 24 points, 501 yards (330 pass, 171 rush), 5.6 yards per play
The first one is the worst performance I've ever seen from a John Chavis defense, not much excuse there. The second one was a shootout without the shootout thanks to a ton of mistakes from both sides...the defense wasn't great or even good, but they didn't get us beat. We'll need some of that this year too.

The Kentucky game was a roller coaster within itself, as the Vol defense was lights out against a really good offense in the first half and completely collapsed in a mustangriffic second half, yet still made the plays they had to make to allow the offense to get the job done. And then came the culmination in the SEC Championship Game against the eventual National Champion: 464 yards allowed, but the Vols forced turnovers and kept LSU out of the end zone, allowing just one touchdown on the night. Turns out this defense had legit NFL talent in Jerod Mayo and Eric Berry, plus high draft picks like Dan Williams and Robert Ayers. It just took time for it all to come together.

This Tennessee defense has talent. We know about the linebackers. We have great hopes for Daniel McCullers. We'll see what happens in the secondary.

They don't have to be great. They need to not get us beat in the Georgia Dome, for starters. Then they need to grow.

The offense should be plenty good enough to do more than hold up its end, and while the Vols will face a strong quarterback in Aaron Murray on September 29, they won't see the best offenses on their schedule until mid to late October, and won't see Arkansas at all. Since it's possible that the best offense in the SEC resides in Knoxville, this is a better year for a young defense to learn on the fly than most.

The Vols will probably still have a week when they need the defense to bail them out, and if so it'll be interesting to see if they can. But slight and simple improvements in four key phases - turnovers, sacks, third downs, big plays allowed - would be an excellent start. And who knows? By the end of the year the defense may be better than we thought they had in them.

For now, they just need to be good enough to support what should be a great offense. But the larger question for the whole year is, will this defense simply try to survive, or can it truly make an impact for the Vols this fall?