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10 Questions for 2014 #8 - Pace of Play

Butch Jones wants to go faster in 2014. But is this young team ready for that on either side of the ball?

Jonathan Ferrey

One of the most noticeable differences in the Orange & White Game was the speed at which the offense got back to the line and snapped the ball.  Tennessee moved at a faster pace in the spring game than in 2013 with both Justin Worley and Josh Dobbs at the helm, even though those quarterbacks were among the few returning pieces from Mike Bajakian's offense last season.  With five new starters on the offensive line and five-star freshmen ready for heavy action at both tailback and wide receiver, the coaching staff's desire to speed things up may still have to slow down again when actual competition comes this fall.  But while it may not be as fast as Butch wants, it should almost certainly be faster than last year.

In 2013 Tennessee ranked 103rd nationally in plays per game with 67.7.  It's not all losing at the bottom of that chart with LSU, Alabama, and Stanford all averaging fewer plays per game than the Vols last year.  And it's not all great at the top; 1-11 Cal finished third nationally in plays per game in part due to Sonny Dykes' system but in part due to a terrible defense giving the ball back to the offense with great frequency.  Plays per game isn't the only metric you can use; this exhaustive PDF report from College Football Matrix looks at plays per minute, where the Vols were in the middle of the pack at 2.73 last year, 63rd nationally.  I'm sure our resident stat gurus have additional numbers they value.

But no matter how you slice it, Butch wants to go faster.  While his system at Cincinnati was never on par with what Oregon is doing, it was a faster tempo than anything the Vols have seen since David Cutcliffe in 2007, when Erik Ainge and the Vols were 15th nationally in total plays.  This will be an important part of the quarterback conversation:  who can get the Vols back to the line and on to the next down most effectively?  And can a young offense deal with the communication issues that can come with a faster pace?

The other issue here deals with Tennessee's defense.  In 2012 Derek Dooley decided not to slow his offense down despite a new defensive coordinator and some question marks on the back end; as a result the Vols trailed only Johnny Manziel in total offense in the SEC but fielded the worst defense in school history statistically speaking and went 5-7.  This year with more firepower at the skill positions and another year for his quarterbacks, Butch seems ready to hit the gas.  But is the defense ready to hold up their end?

That's the biggest takeaway on pace of play stats to me:  it's not enough to play fast, you have to play fast well.  Teams like Stanford and Alabama play slow and do just fine because they play slow well, and because they have defenses that give them plenty of chances to play slow.  If Tennessee tries to play fast but winds up being inefficient, they're going to give the ball right back to the other team a bunch with young-in-spots defenders trying to keep up.  That could be a bad situation.

Last year Tennessee converted just 35.8% of its third downs, 92nd nationally and worse than everyone in the SEC other than Kentucky and Vanderbilt.  Take away great performances against Austin Peay (7 of 11) and Kentucky (7 of 14) and the Vols went 43 of 134 (32.1%) against teams with a pulse.  That number absolutely has to improve or Tennessee is going to put its defense in terrible spots and struggle to score points no matter how fast it can snap the ball.

I think Tennessee will be faster this year, and I also think there will be more big plays out there.  Last year Tennessee had only 142 plays of 10+ yards (112th nationally) and 46 plays of 20+ yards (100th nationally).  I fully expect the Vols to average more than the 23 points per game they put up last year.  But I don't think Tennessee will go as fast as Butch Jones would ultimately like to due to inexperience.  And I don't think that's necessarily the worst thing in the world with a defense that may not be ready to be on the field the number of snaps a really fast offense would require.  As the seasons progress it will be interesting to see how much Butch tailors his system to each team's individual personnel.  For now, I would expect a noticeably faster offense, but not one you're likely to confuse with Oregon any time soon because I don't think either side of the ball is ready for it yet.  Will faster = better?  We'll see.