Finally. After three straight losses in one-possession games, the Vols put one in the win column Saturday in Knoxville, staring a 24-3 deficit in the face before roaring back to beat the Georgia Bulldogs 38-31. After weeks of gloom, Vols fans got to spend a day in glorious sunshine. Was everything fixed? Of course not. Wins and losses tend to elicit binary responses--especially in the immediate aftermath, it seems that either nothing is working or nothing can stop us. The truth, of course, is usually in the middle. Even after the loss to Arkansas, far and away Tennessee's worst performance of the season (and hopefully still the worst performance of the season come December), there were positives. And even after this win, a lot of the concerns are still there. But a win makes it a lot easier to see positives that were easily swallowed up before. And, as always, the Trending Report is here trying its best to sort through the emotion and tell you where the Vols are improving and where their play is concerning.
- Winning. For the first time this season, the Trending Report made an appearance in Neyland (insofar as an article that's floating around in the author's brain has spatial location) and got to witness the pure joy of a big win that has been absent in Knoxville since October 2013. Winning feels fantastic, and Tennessee fans have been waiting for this one all summer. Enjoy it.
- Finishing Drives. While you're enjoying it, let's zoom in a bit. How did the win happen? What changed from the Florida game to the Georgia game? If you have to pick one thing, it's finishing drives. Two weeks ago, Florida made just four trips inside the Tennessee 40 but scored touchdowns all four times, while the Vols kicked two field goals. And early on against Georgia, it looked like more of the same, as Georgia scored on their first scoring opportunity, and the Vols got just 3 points out of two trips inside the Georgia 5. But from then on, Tennessee won the battle of turning drives into points. In the last 2.9 quarters, Georgia made four trips inside the Tennessee 30. The results? Missed field goal, made field goal, touchdown, clock expired (end of game). If those two field goal attempts turn into touchdowns (as they did against Florida and Oklahoma), the Vols very likely lose in convincing fashion. On the other side of the ball, the Vols made six trips inside Georgia's 40 in the last three quarters. They turned those six trips into five touchdowns (and one punt). The week before against Arkansas, the Vols had just 13 points on five scoring opportunities, for an average of 2.6 points per opportunity. In the first quarter against Georgia, they had 1.5 points per opportunity. In the last three quarters, they had 5.8 points per opportunity. That conversion rate would've beaten Oklahoma, Florida, or Arkansas. Finishing drives will win you football games.
- Playmakers making plays. Let's zoom in once more. How did Tennessee finish drives? By getting plays from its playmakers. Despite the accolades, Josh Dobbs really didn't look impressive throwing the football (more on that later). But his receivers stepped up in a way they hadn't all season, and between that and Dobbs' ability to run, Tennessee scored touchdowns. It started with Dobbs' legs, just as the South Carolina game did last year. He ran for 118 yards and punched it into the end zone twice, a level of production we've seen from him just one other time this season. But unlike last time, he had help from his receivers Saturday. Ethan Wolf extended Tennessee's game-winning drive by hauling in a pass that was slightly behind him and gaining 32 yards. On the same drive, another pass was slightly behind Alex Ellis, but Ellis adjusted and added another 24 yards. The Vols' final scoring drive of the first half got a huge boost from Josh Malone taking a short pass and making defenders miss for 23 yards to set up Dobbs inside the five. And the biggest play of the day came from Josh Smith on a 4th and 9 from the 40 with the Vols down 24-3. The pass was behind him, but Smith adjusted to make an eye-catching, spinning catch and then raced 25 yards to the checkerboards to give Tennessee their first touchdown of the day. Without that play, the comeback probably doesn't happen. In Tennessee's three losses, those plays didn't happen. Dobbs might've made a couple good runs, but either his receivers didn't help him out in the passing game, or his throws were too far off to matter. Saturday, those plays were there. And they extended drives. And they turned into points.
- Coaching like you're behind by three touchdowns. The game changed when Tennessee went for two consecutive fourth downs in the second quarter--a 4th and 4 from the UGA 47 and a 4th and 9 from the UGA 40--and converted them both. Despite statsy folks arguing for years that going for 4th and short-to-medium in opposing territory is generally a good idea, these are not decisions that coaches usually make, and these are certainly not decisions that Butch Jones--oft-criticized for his conservatism--usually makes. It may be the smart decision, but it's not the popular one. As the Vols were lining up for the 4th and 4, Gary Danielson was openly questioning the decision not to punt it away. But down 21 points, Butch Jones made the aggressive call, and more importantly, the right call, and it paid off. And while those plays may be the clearest example of coaching with nothing to lose, they aren't the only example. A passing attack that had been limited almost entirely to dink-and-dunk all season--especially playing with a lead--suddenly found an intermediate passing game. And that paid off too. The Tennessee coaches have been appropriately criticized for the Vols' play with a lead, but they did an excellent job with a deficit. The Vols would be well-served if Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord coached as if they were in a hole for the rest of the season.
- Offensive line depth. By the end of the game Saturday, just two of Tennessee's projected offensive line starters circa August 2015 were in the game. Did anyone notice a dropoff? While the offensive line has struggled for most of the season, the underclassmen are showing signs that better times may be on the horizon. Freshmen Jack Jones and Chance Hall impressed filling in for injured starters Saturday, and with sophomores Coleman Thomas and Jashon Robertson growing into quality players, the core is there for an offensive front that will just keep getting better. Especially if freshman Drew Richmond can live up to his recruiting stars and take the left tackle spot after Kyler Kerbyson graduates.
- Letting the other team make mistakes. The Vols got big enough leads against Oklahoma and Florida to force the opposition to play perfectly in the last ten minutes. But, here's the important part: the Vols then gave their opposition the opportunity to make plays in those last ten minutes. And the opposition obliged. And the opposition won. On Saturday, the Vols gave Georgia the opportunity to make plays and send the game to overtime. And that should temper the "we finally closed it out!" enthusiasm. But the difference at the end was that Georgia didn't finish. They had a receiver behind defender Malik Foreman with a chance to tie the game, and the ball went through his hands. You don't want to have to rely on drops like that to win a game. But after facing a pair of opponents who played perfectly in crunch time, it was nice to get a little help.
- The fans. After appearing totally apathetic in the second half of a one-possession loss last week, Neyland was in it for 60 minutes this week. Sure, it got a bit quieter when Georgia went up 24-3. But the total defeat wasn't there. And when Georgia had a chance to tie it, a fan base that struggles with sitting nervously on their heels let the Bulldogs offense have it. Chris asked for stupid cheering, and by and large, he got it.
- Dobbs-shaped mood swings. Coming into the season, there was Heisman hype. After the loss to Arkansas, there were calls for backup Quinten Dormady. The quarterback position often brings out the most irrational extremes, and this week's performance from Josh Dobbs is no exception. Yes, he was great on the ground. Yes, his production through the air (312 yards, 7.4 yards-per-attempt) was excellent. And his production near the end of the game (127 yards, 10.5 YPA) was even better. But that's not because he finally figured everything out passing the ball. His first touchdown pass was behind the receiver (his second such pass in a row, after Alex Ellis failed to pull down an errant 3rd and 9 pass). On Tennessee's second touchdown drive, they were fortunate to avoid disaster when Dobbs threw into quadruple coverage, overlooking a wide-open Jalen Hurd just past the line of scrimmage. All three passes on the eventual game-winning drive were behind the receivers (twice the receivers made adjustments (see: "playmakers making plays"), and one fell incomplete when Preston Williams couldn't get around in time). Josh Dobbs hasn't turned into an excellent passer. The differences Saturday were that his misses were close enough for receivers to make plays, and that his receivers generally made those plays. Given all he brings on the ground, "close enough for the receivers to make plays" can still make for an excellent all-around performance if the receivers are playing well, and Tennessee can and did win with that kind of performance. But Dobbs isn't going to carry this team on his back. Even on good days, he struggles with accuracy, and he's going to continue to need his receivers to adjust and make plays.
- Giving up explosive plays. If there's one thing that should terrify Tennessee fans in the aftermath of a big win, it's that the defense's propensity for giving up big plays is getting worse. It was bad against Bowling Green and worse against Arkansas, but the Georgia game took it to a whole new level. The UT defense now ranks 114th in the country in defensive explosiveness (i.e. how often does the opponent turn successful plays into big plays). Despite holding the Bulldogs to a woeful 34% success rate, the Vols allowed the Dawgs to roll up 7.2 yards per play. Georgia had just two touchdown drives (yeah, it sounds crazy, but it's true), and neither was more than five plays. The first time, the Bulldogs covered 75 yards in three plays, and the second time, they covered 65 yards in two plays. And the issues were in the run and pass defense alike. If Sony Michel wasn't down in the backfield, he was breaking a big one. And Georgia's receivers had plenty of opportunities for big plays as Emmanuel Moseley and Malik Foreman continued to struggle to stay with the deep routes. Fix this issue, and the defensive performance is nearly perfect. Don't fix it, and opposing skill players are licking their chops.
- The bounces. Tennessee has had some good fortune this year, even in losses. But the bounces went the other way against Georgia. It's not often that one team returns two fumbles for touchdowns in the same game, but Georgia did, one of their own and one of Tennessee's. Both returns covered over 70 yards. And to top it all off, Dobbs' second pass of the game ricocheted ten yards across the fields and right into the arms of a defender. The breaks did not go Tennessee's way early in this game. To their credit, they didn't let up.
- Smokey grays. The mock-ups looked solid when Tennessee released their alternate uniform back in the summer, but while they looked good in pictures, they didn't stand out in person. No problem with the Vols and Nike trying an alt to keep things fresh, but this one didn't come off as well as they may've hoped. The traditional orange is still tough to beat.
- 3D4W (the song, not the D). "Third Down for What?" was a nice idea, but there are times where it inhibits the crowd noise as much as encouraging it. There were times Saturday where the fans were roaring for a big second down, only to take a break to wave their arms in the air and let the Georgia players huddle in relative silence before third down. The noise comes back before the snap, but a song designed to increase crowd noise is actually giving the opposition a few seconds respite before the roar comes back. If you have to fight for your position every week, "Third Down for What?" should be relegated to backup duty while Good Ol' Fashioned Organic Crowd Noise takes the starting job.
- Not playing Nick Chubb. Last year, the Vols were one of the last teams to face Todd Gurley before a four-game suspension knocked him out for the meat of SEC play and got the Nick Chubb hype machine rolling. This year, Chubb got just one play before going down with a gruesome knee injury. Early reports are that Chubb escaped damage to the ACL, so while he'll miss the rest of the season, he should make a full recovery by 2016. Our thoughts and prayers are with him, and we hope that in 2016, we'll finally face Feature Back Nick Chubb as part of a game between a full-strength Vols and a full-strength Dawgs.
- Bringing the "A" game against Georgia. For the third year in a row, Tennessee played their best game of the first half of the season against Georgia. I'm not sure what it is about the Bulldogs, but they seem to bring out the best in Butch Jones. Sadly, that good play was all too fleeting last year, as all the good feelings from a hard-fought loss were gone the following week after an embarrassing fourth quarter collapse to give Will Muschamp his second win over Butch Jones. This year, the Vols get a bye following the Georgia win, and fans can only hope they can bring their "A" game again in two weeks in Tuscaloosa.
- Resilience. If playing scared with a lead has been a consistent flaw of Jones' Vols, never giving up in the face of a large deficit has been a consistent strength. A first quarter fumble inside the 5 was returned 96 yards the other way to give Georgia a 7-0 lead and evoke memories of 2003. But even after that lead swelled to 24-3, when it would've been easy to follow the 2003 Vols and throw in the towel, the Vols never quit. They never even panicked, calming rolling off 28 points in a row to take a 31-24 lead. Resilience was entirely absent under Tennessee's previous coaching staff, and instilling it so thoroughly has been one of Jones' biggest successes in Knoxville.
- The first quarter. The score may not have gone the Vols' way early, but they had their way with Georgia for most of the first quarter. Tennessee had over 150 yards of offense and two trips inside the UGA 5 before the Bulldogs were able to manage a single first down. Fast starts have been one consistent positive from Jones' Vols this year, and even though it didn't show on the scoreboard, Saturday was no exception. For the first fourteen minutes, the offense was moving the ball, and the defense was dominant. There's still work to be done on adjustments (the offense did unusually well on that score Saturday, but the defense struggled in the last three quarters), but the start is there.
- Salting it away. We close a happy week with one more concern. For the third time this season, Tennessee got the ball with under five minutes remaining and a one-score lead. In those three drives, Tennessee has combined for eight runs, one pass, 12 yards, and most importantly, no first downs. The offense racked up over 500 yards Saturday, but this one weakness remained: they couldn't salt the game away. And if that doesn't improve, there will be a lot more nervous moments hoping the defense can hang on.