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Statistical rankings improve but show Vols still lack key ingredient to success

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The Tennessee defense is on schedule and playing Top 25 caliber football, but the woes along the offensive line are hindering the offense's ability to keep up.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The statistical rankings this week bear out what we all know: Halfway through the season with the sixth-most difficult schedule in college football, the Vols are still looking for that final piece to the puzzle, but the rest of the picture is coming together nicely.

What Tennessee is doing well

You expect a fair amount of general improvement in these rankings after playing an FCS opponent, and we got it. What we may not have expected is to rank in the Top 30 in a total of 18 different stat categories halfway through the season. And all of that against the sixth-most difficult schedule in the nation to boot. So the Vols still have a long way to climb, but Top 30 in 40% of the things officially tracked by the NCAA is progress. Yes, the next two weeks will likely be a one-step-back phase, but hey, let's celebrate the two-steps-forward when they're taken.

This week, only one category -- Blocked Kicks -- fell out of the Top 30, and that was replaced with six new arrivals. Welcome to the party, Total Defense, Scoring Defense, Turnovers Gained, Turnover Margin, Punt Return Defense, and 4th Down Conversion Pct Defense. The eyeball test has been gradually revealing to us that the Tennessee defense is really pretty good and arguably ahead of schedule, and the stat rankings side with the eyeballs.

The team so far this season is simply not giving away yards or plays due to penalties, and the defense is both strong and balanced. They're stopping offenses before they get started, they're not letting them get very far when they do get started, and they're taking the ball away when they have a chance to grab it. They're good in both yards and points, and they're good on every down that's measured (1st, 3rd, and 4th). So props to this defense. They're getting it done.

Categories in which Tennessee is in the Top 30
Category 2011 2012 2013

Utah St.

Ark. St. OK GA FL UTC
Blocked Kicks Allowed 1 1 1
Blocked Punts Allowed 1 1
Fewest Penalty Yards 5 5 2
Fewest Penalty Yards Per Game 51 67 21 43 11 3 4 6 2
3rd Down Conversion Pct Defense 57 50 91 16 13 3 1 3 5
Team Tackles for Loss 67 48 90 47 21 36 20 3 6
Passing Yards Allowed 12 111 27 31 30 45 28 14 8
Fewest Penalties Per Game 56 92 26 56 15 6 9 20 10
Fewest Penalties 6 18 11
Passes Intercepted 86 56 40 10 37 33 36 12 11
Team Passing Efficiency Defense 58 21 25 35 32 14 13
Total Defense 28 107 83 22 29 42 49 33 16
Scoring Defense 36 104 78 10 21 38 57 37 19
Turnovers Gained 91 95 35 11 29 31 43 32 21
Turnover Margin 59 88 54 6 19 35 39 42 23
First Downs Defense 18 86 45 14 21 41 24 25 24
Punt Return Defense 85 67 92 85 60 27 40 34 24
4th Down Conversion Pct Defense 48 86 117 1 48 31 48 42 30
New Arrivals: Total Defense, Scoring Defense, Turnovers Gained, Turnover Margin, Punt Return Defense, 4th Down Conversion Pct Defense.
The Dearly Departed: Blocked Kicks.

Where Tennessee needs major improvement

Here again, the eyeball speaks the truth. If there's a silver lining in our Really Needs Improvement table, it's that there aren't as many things here as there used to be. If you get out your magnifying glass and look even harder for another silver lining, you'll conclude that, except for one stat category -- Red Zone Defense, which let's be honest seems like one of those categories that's trying to tell you something but doesn't quite get it out -- everything here comes down to the offensive line. It's like taking a math test but not knowing addition. Even if you know every advanced concept cold, the inability to add is going to sink you on every single question. If 2+2=10, then dividing (2+2) by 5 is going to give you 2 even if you know 4/5 is .8. Get one thing wrong, but get it wrong on every single question.

Right. So the inexperience along the entire offensive line is keeping the Vols' offense from gaining yards at a rate they need to to stay competitive. One guy in five failing on his block can blow up the whole play, and getting all five of the guys to do it right at the same time on every single play just isn't happening as often as it needs to. When the other team is behind your line of scrimmage, your running back can't run and your quarterback can't throw, and if he does, he can't throw it very far because there's just not enough time. The o-line is by far the team's biggest challenge, and these guys can be heroes if they can figure it out and get it going. I'm rooting for them to do exactly that.

Categories in which Tennessee is 90th or below
Category 2011 2012 2013 Utah St. Ark. St. OK GA FL UTC
Total Offense 104 18 102 79 81 93 89 103 106
Rushing Offense 116 61 44 91 88 94 97 109 109
Sacks Allowed 40 5 21 65 66 109 107 118 118
Passing Yards per Completion 115 87 93 103 110 117 119
Tackles for Loss Allowed 38 9 37 48 41 98 109 117 119
Red Zone Defense 47 115 11 1 88 101 114 120 120
New Arrivals: None.
Recent Departures:
Punt Returns, First Downs Offense.

THE BIG FAT MIDDLE

And here's the rest, for tracking purposes.

Categories in which Tennessee is in the Middle of the Rankings
Category 2011 2012 2013 Utah St. Ark. St. OK GA FL UTC
Kickoff Returns 41 80 20 84 68 63 48 58 31
Blocked Kicks 21 28 33
Red Zone Offense 58 29 100 1 44 55 39 49 33
Completion Percentage 71 58 35
Fumbles Recovered 71 113 29 19 22 22 51 65 38
Punt Returns 61 22 51 84 14 34 54 97 43
Net Punting 104 52 28 70 76 78 72 59 48
Time of Possession 37 116 91 44 22 27 38 45 52
Passes Had Intercepted 63 83 107 1 34 76 43 65 53
4th Down Conversion Pct 91 80 76 62 89 106 116 54 54
Turnovers Lost 20 58 87 1 13 52 44 63 55
Kickoff Return Defense 7 47 118 62 76 73 54 54 59
Passing Offense 50 15 109 44 54 68 54 56 62
Team Sacks 100 98 99 73 58 78 67 54 65
Rushing Defense 69 85 100 39 49 48 78 73 67
Fumbles Lost 6 28 24 1 1 23 55 70 74
Team Passing Efficiency 69 31 111 42 61 98 83 86 76
3rd Down Conversion Pct 56 81 92 57 8 63 62 81 78
Scoring Offense 106 22 94 41 48 83 74 89 79
First Downs Offense 98 20 101 47 48 53 84 98 88

Players in the Top 30

No real surprise here that A.J. Johnson and Cam Sutton are the stars on this team. It may surprise some that Justin Worley is also in that conversation despite the struggles of his supporting cast. And three cheers for Aaron Medley, who's quietly developing into the next kicker we can count on for four years.

Player Stat 2011 2012 2013 Utah St. Ark. St. OK GA FL UTC
A.J. Johnson Solo Tackles 14 6 6
A.J. Johnson Total Tackles 4 11 8 10
Cameron Sutton Interceptions 4 13 17
Justin Worley Completions Per Game 22 29 22 16 18
A.J. Johnson Forced Fumbles 3 22
Justin Worley Points Responsible For 16 23
Aaron Medley Field Goals Per Game 26 16 25
Justin Worley Points Responsible For Per Game 18 25
Cameron Sutton Passes Defended 21
Jalen Reeves-Maybin Tackles For Loss 21 26
Aaron Medley Field Goal Percentage 27
Cameron Sutton Fumbles Recovered 11 14
Todd Kelly, Jr. Fumbles Recovered 4 14
Jalen Reeves-Maybin Fumbles Recovered 14
Todd Kelly, Jr. Fumbles Recovered 11
Justin Worley Passing TDs 15
Marquez North Receiving TDs 17
A.J. Johnson Passed Defended 17 20
Owen Williams Sacks 29
A.J. Johnson Interceptions 4
Justin Worley Completion Percentage 16
Dontavis Sapp Fumbles Recovered 9
Michael Palardy Punting 11
Devaun Swafford Punt Return TDs 14
Byron Moore Interceptions 13
Cordarrelle Patterson Kickoff Returns 14
Cordarrelle Patterson All-Purpose Runners 16
Tyler Bray Total Offense 19
Justin Hunter Receiving Yards Per Game 22
Devrin Young Punt Returns 28
Tyler Bray Passing Efficiency 29
Austin Johnson Interceptions 23