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In Better News: The Tennessee Defense

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The offense has gotten all the press this week, but the Vol defense is playing far beyond anyone's expectations.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

As is the case when you lose a game like that - and I'm not sure the Vols have ever lost a game quite like that - the things you did poorly get all the chatter.  Accordingly, we've spent all week looking at Tennessee's offense and how it can achieve basic competency, and more specifically at its woes in the red zone and big plays.

But now it's Friday and another game beckons, and even though Chattanooga shouldn't offer much of a threat or likewise an opportunity to feel better about the program right now, it should further emphasize an incredible truth:  Tennessee's defense is playing at an exceptional level.

Not just exceptional for a group that starts a true freshman at defensive end and features another prominently in the secondary.  Exceptional, period, especially for a group that's yet to play a team like Chattanooga to pad the stats.

Joel already tracked all the numbers earlier this week, but just as we did with the offense's deficiencies, let's break down a couple of places the defense has been stellar.

Overall Tennessee is 22nd nationally in yards per play allowed at 4.75.  Last year Tennessee finished 100th nationally in this category (and next to last in the SEC) at 6.07.  These numbers are just slightly better than the 2012 defense, which gave up 6.13 yards per play to finish 102nd.  Right now 22nd nationally is still only good enough for fifth best in the league, but again, the Vols haven't played any cupcakes yet unlike their SEC brethren.

This number is bolstered by Tennessee's pass defense, currently 12th in the nation at 5.5 yards allowed per attempt. Here, obviously, Tennessee is helped by having faced Jeff Driskel (2.8 YPA) and the Vols did get roughed up pretty good by Oklahoma (9.3 YPA), but overall the Vol pass defense has been way better than anyone would've believed if you told them we would be playing Todd Kelly a huge number of snaps and starting a guy named Michael Williams at the other corner.

(We keep making this point about no one even knowing who he was in fall camp, but it's meant to be the opposite of disrespect for Williams.  Cameron Sutton is a superstar on the other side of the field, but Williams has done way more than hold his own on the other end.  His presence has been a blessing for a Vol defense with several talented freshmen who can now afford to remain waiting in the wings as they mature, and since Williams is just a sophomore he may not let them get on the field next year either.)

The Vols are also bolstered by having eight interceptions in five games this year; 1.6 per game is currently good for 14th in the nation.  Last year Tennessee had just 14 INTs all year, just a dozen in 2012, and just nine in 2011.

In the ground game Tennessee currently sits in the middle of the pack defensively in yards per carry allowed, 66th overall.  But we have also faced the best back in college football; here's what Georgia has averaged per carry this season:

  • Clemson:  8.0
  • at South Carolina:  5.7
  • Troy:  9.4
  • Tennessee:  5.4
  • Vanderbilt:  6.9
Otherwise the Vols have been solid against the run, and these numbers are bolstered by 11 sacks in these first five games; that number isn't setting the world on fire, but it does put Tennessee on pace for its first 20+ sack season since 2010.  Small steps are adding up to a huge difference.

And in an a couple of places, the steps are ginormous.

Tackles For Loss

Tennessee has 42 TFLs in five games; 8.4 per game is currently good for third in the country and tied with Mississippi State for the best in the SEC.  Last year the Vols had 65 TFLs the entire year.

Even better news here:  the Vols are getting better as they go along.

Tennessee had just six TFLs against Utah State, nine against Arkansas State, and five at Oklahoma.  And then suddenly, the floodgates:  ten on the road at Georgia, and a dozen strong against the Gators on Saturday.  The Dawgs have given up 23 TFLs all year in five games, meaning the Vols claim nearly half of them.  Likewise the Gators have given up 24 in four games, which means the Vols have exactly half of them.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin is leading the charge here with seven TFLs in five games.  In each of the last two years A.J. Johnson has led the team...with 8.5.  The whole year.

JRM's arrival has been the most pleasant of surprises, completely skipping whatever middle ground is supposed to exist between special teams warrior and defensive stud.  Consider:  last year Reeves-Maybin had just 14 total tackles and none of them were for loss.  And now all of a sudden he's everywhere.

Putting opponents behind the chains is one big reason why the Vols have been so good in their most famous category:

Third Down For What

Florida moved the chains seven times in 20 attempts, but the Vols are still third nationally at 24.6% of conversions allowed.

We've tracked these numbers all year, because the reason Tennessee has been so good on third down is because they've been so good on first and second down:

Average Third Down Yards to Gain:

  • Utah State:  7.7 (3 of 14)
  • Arkansas State:  7.5 (4 of 17)
  • Oklahoma:  6.8 (3 of 12)
  • Georgia:  8.2 (1 of 10)
  • Florida:  7.0 (7 of 20; average does not include 3rd and 21 end of game kneel)
Even more interesting:  the Vol defense has allowed eight offensive touchdowns to Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida, and did not force a third down attempt on any of those eight drives.

So, roughly speaking, if we can get you to third down, we can put you on the sideline.  For those who'd like to dig a little deeper, there should easily be a correlation between drives where the Vols forced one of their many TFLs and drives that ended with a failed third down conversion.

There's some weirdness here in the red zone, where the Vols have yet to turn a team away without allowing points, one of only six teams in the country with that dubious honor.  But Tennessee is fifth nationally in red zone attempts, allowing the other team in just 10 times all year.  Seven of those ten attempts belong to Oklahoma and Georgia, and twice the Sooners had to kick field goals.

Tennessee is giving its opponents very few 3rd and shorts, and then making sure they don't get beat on 3rd and long:

No Big Plays

Two years ago Sal Sunseri's crew gave up 74 plays of 20+ yards, 115th nationally.  Last year Tennessee surrendered 65 plays of 20+ yards, 91st nationally.

In five games this year, Tennessee has given up just 15 plays of 20+ yards, tied for 13th nationally.

I'm not sure if I'd call what Tennessee is doing bending without breaking.  What my eyes see is one elite corner and several other defensive backs who can hold their own, and All-American linebacker play that's creating a high number of TFL opportunities to put offenses behind schedule.  How much of that John Jancek knew he had coming into this season, who knows, but it's paying off bigtime for the Vol defense right now.

With so much struggle on the offensive side of the ball, this raises the question:  can the defense win some games for us this year?

Glad you asked, because this may be the best news yet:  other than Alabama, Tennessee shouldn't face another elite-level offense the rest of the way home.

The Tide are 10th nationally in yards per play, but this too is bolstered by huge numbers against Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss, and yes, Florida.  They were good against West Virginia but pedestrian against Ole Miss.  We'll dream about beating this team in two weeks.

Meanwhile, the rest of the schedule presents offenses that should not be as good as the ones we've already seen from Oklahoma (21st YPP) and Georgia (11th YPP):

  • Ole Miss 43rd YPP
  • South Carolina 56th YPP
  • Kentucky 35th YPP
  • Missouri 64th YPP
  • Vanderbilt 117th YPP
Again, you're dealing with right at half of the season for sample size on many of these teams, so there's still a lot left to learn.  But outside of maybe Alabama, I don't think we're going to see bigger offensive challenges than the ones we already faced in Norman and Athens.  And if this defense can stay healthy, especially with Sutton and at linebacker, they could continue to mature along the way.

Butch Jones thinks the Vols have overachieved defensively.  For perhaps the first time, I hope he's wrong.  And if he is?  Unbelievably, we could be talking about one of the better units in recent memory.  And it will lose only two starters for next year.

It is the defense, as many have pointed out this week, that gives hope to future production for the offense.  No one could've seen this much improvement coming from this group last year.  So perhaps we can say the same about the offensive line.  And either way, this bunch should continue to give Tennessee a chance to compete every single Saturday.