Growing up on college football from more than, oh, three years ago, it's still strange to think that Utah State is a good team. They were historically awful, clearly the third wheel of the Utah Triumvirate of Hate behind the BYU-Utah rivalry. Since 2010, on the other hand, they've steadily gotten better. Their recipe: at least one excellent class, great defense, and a game-breaking quarterback in internet darling Chuckie Keeton.
It's worked well for them, even if it's only staked them to a 1-4 record against their Utah brethren from 2011 through 2013, although three of those losses were close: 27-24 to BYU in 2011, 6-3 (ew) to BYU in 2012, and 30-26 to Utah in 2013. They're not that far off from Utah/BYU levels recently; treating them like a regular overmatched mid-major is asking for trouble.
Bill Connelly's excellent preview series covers more about the Utah State personnel than I could hope to, so start there. Looking at this, we care about answering the following two questions:
Based on Keeton's performance against similar pass defenses, what are realistic targets for the Tennessee defense to be successful?
Given Utah State's normally-solid defense, how did the 2013 Tennessee offense do against similar defenses, and are there reasons they could outperform those numbers?
THE KEETON QUESTION
First off, here are Keeton's composite stats over the last three seasons
2013: 7.1 YPA, 69.4%, 18 TD/2 INT; 4.4 YPC, 2 TD
2012: 8.3 YPA, 67.6%, 27 TD/9 INT; 4.8 YPC, 8 TD
2011: 6.9 YPA, 60.9%, 11 TD/2 INT; 4.3 YPC, 4 TD
For those of you new to this: YPA is yards per attempt, the second number is completion percentage, and YPC is yards per carry. In these previews, total yards matter less because we don't know what the run-pass ratio or total number of plays will be, so per-play averages matter more than raw yardage totals.
Regardless, the numbers Keeton has put up since arriving in Logan have been excellent. High completion percentages fuel the high YPA numbers, but he's accurate, successful, and can run enough to keep defenses honest.
For Tennessee, their 2013 pass defense allowed a 56.5% opposing completion percentage, 7.2 YPA, and 18 TDs to 14 INTs. They were opportunistic, but those are average numbers on the whole; 7.2 YPA is solidly NCAA average, which is what happens when you're 56th in opponent YPA. (The secondary should be better this year, but this should at least give us a starting point.)
If we're going to look at projections for Keeton, we should figure out how he's done against defenses with those composite numbers across his career. Fortunately, we have a sample size of eight teams across three seasons to look at1. How'd he do against those teams?
As it happens, pretty well; his composite numbers are 185 completions on 260 attempts (71.2%), 7.7 YPA, 16 TD/3 INT. Basically, he's a little better than his career averages against that type of defense, which is ...not good for Tennessee's prospects. For comparison purposes: 7.7 YPA is in the upper third of passing attacks across NCAA level, which does not bode well when coupled with those accuracy numbers.
The one benefit for Tennessee: Utah State loses a lot of their upper-end skill position depth in the backfield and at receiver, meaning Keeton needs to be excellent in order for the Utah State passing attack to get long-term success. JoJo Nelson is the leading returning WR, but Ronald Butler and his 8.7 yards/target are also of concern. Beyond that, it's a lot of new blood, so there's a good chance that Tennessee can disrupt the passing attack. (Whether they can generate a pass rush or contain Keeton are trickier questions.)
The only other question is if Tennessee can ball-hawk successfully, which they were decent at last year. The downside: 14 INT to 23 PBU is a very high PBU-to-INT ratio (normally 4:1 is expected, not less than 2:1), so there aren't guarantees this will last. That being said: If Keeton starts coughing up the ball left and right, that probably means the mostly-new Utah State WR corps is overmatched, not that Keeton's failing to perform.
TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: Keeton is held under 7 yards per attempt OR Keeton is held under 8 yards per attempt, but throws at least 2 INT.
TENNESSEE FAILS IF: Keeton averages 8+ yards per attempt and throws no picks.
THE PREDICTION: Keeton ends up in the 7.5 yards per attempt range, throws a pick, but goes to the ground enough to bail his receiving corps out of significant danger.
THAT UTAH STATE DEFENSE
Ignore the Utah State defense at your peril; while Gary Anderson-now entering Year Two at Wisconsin-got a lot of credit for making the Utah State defense into a powerhouse, Todd Orlando at worst prevented attrition, but more credibly turned the run defense into a true terror while maintaining an excellent pass defense. Seriously: check these components out:
Rushing: 2.79 YPC, 9 TD
Passing: 53.9% completion percentage, 6.5 YPA, 17 TD/17 INT
Basically, Utah State's D turned the average RB into a worse version of Tom Smith and a, um, better version of 2013 Justin Worley. (Seriously, the passing game last year was BRUTAL. Brutal.)
Amazingly-or not, given Tennesse's schedule lately-we actually have similar 2013 performances to compare again for both rushing2 and passing2. Tennessee's performance against similar teams in 2013 looks like this:
Rushing: 4.30 YPC, 4 TD (594 yards on 138 carries)
Passing: 51.9% completion percentage, 5.1 YPA, 2 TD/11 INT (83 attempts, 160 completions)
First off: yikes, those passing numbers. That's terrible, even if it is hurt somewhat by the Josh Dobbs-versus-Vanderbilt stinkbomb. Second off: those rushing numbers are good given context, but remember the offensive line we had last year and the guys we don't have this year.
This means we need to make some adjustments before picking success/failure metrics:
The running game: Utah State is rolling through a lot of new starters, same as Tennessee. While we know the questions on Tennessee's offensive line, Utah State is also cycling a lot of new starters in the front seven. We don't know if the old class was a Golden Generation situation for Utah State, but hoping this is true is just begging for disappointment. On Tennessee's side, a nearly-entirely-new offensive line is cause for significant concern, but the actual running backs are at best a wash on talent alone. (Plus, Justin Worley might tuck and run a few times, which is at least good for a laugh.)
The passing game: lots of incoming talent at WR for Tennessee plus lots of departing talent for Utah State should mean good things for the Vols, even if most of said WR talent in the two-deep is unproven. (Von Pearson's the only new starter, though.) As long as they can run routes (and run block) decently, they should be successful. The wild card, of course, is Worley's ability to actually get it to open guys.
TENNESSEE'S RUN GAME SUCCEEDS IF: 4.0 YPC or more. It's not a particularly high bar, but Utah State's run D has been really good, and Tennessee's new offensive line is making me skittish. 4.0 is a decent enough bar to mostly keep Tennessee out of passing downs.
TENNESSEE'S RUN GAME FAILS IF: 2.5 YPC or less.
THE PREDICTION: 3.8 YPC, but mostly of the boom/bust variety. Utah State's run defense is good enough to be successful against Tennessee's running game, but there will be blown assignments on both ends. Since Utah State has questions on the back end, a couple of long runs are likely.
TENNESSEE'S PASS GAME SUCCEEDS IF: 7.0 YPA or more. This would be a huge improvement on last year's numbers, but the receiving corps has talent, experience, and size advantages, provided Worley can take advantage of them.
TENNESSEE'S PASS GAME FAILS IF: 5.5 YPA or less. This would be a terrible harbinger for the rest of the season, quite frankly.
THE PREDICTION: 6.7 YPA, better than Worley's typical numbers4 but still falling short of NCAA average. How this number is reached is the question; if it's primarily of the short-yardage, high-percentage variety, that likely means the run game has problems. If it's boom/bust, the run game likely has significant traction so risks can be taken.
IN TOTAL: Keeton is the most accomplished and best player in this game; however, Tennessee has enough of 2-10 that it may not matter. A free drive and a couple of busted run assignments might be enough for a 24-21 Tennessee victory, but there really isn't any margin for error in this game.
1. Those eight teams: 2011 Auburn and Colorado State, 2012 Utah, Texas State, and Toledo, and 2013 Utah, Air Force, and San Jose State. Murderer's row, this.↩
2. Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Vanderbilt. Yes, even if Missouri's run defense is 5-30% worse this year, we're talking last year.↩
3. Florida, Missouri, Vanderbilt, Alabama, South Carolina. Missouri fans: you can stop pointing at the scoreboard. Your arms must be getting tired. Also, James Franklin was an offensive genius, which is why Vanderbilt is on here for defense twice.↩
4. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT. I don't see you excited yet. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT. FIVE TO THIRTY PERCENT MORE OFFENSE THAN NORMAL. AND NO WILL MUSCHAMP IN SIGHT.↩