Tennessee lost their fourth one-possession game of the season Saturday in Tuscaloosa, falling 19-14 to the Alabama Crimson Tide. This was, however, the first of the four in which the Vols covered the spread in their loss. Small comfort in the agony of defeat, but Tennessee played better than expected to by outsiders. Where did they improve to keep the game so close, and what were the problems that led to the ultimate failure? Here's this week's Trending Report.
- Defense, circa pre-Bama 2014. Despite wearing down late in the season, struggling especially against Alabama and South Carolina, the Vols' defense finished 2014 ranked 16th in the defensive S&P+ rankings and 25th in the defensive FEI. This year, despite returning seven starters, the Vols have regressed by almost every measure, dropping to the mid-30s in both computer rankings, giving up late rallies to Oklahoma and Florida, and generally getting bossed around by Arkansas. But Saturday was a return to the early part of 2014. The defense wasn't dominant, but it was good again. The Vols' 10 tackles for loss were the most since the middle of last season. Tennessee had double-digit TFL totals three times in the first half of 2014, but they'd fallen off significantly since then, only recording 9 in their last three games before breaking out against Alabama. The outburst of tackles behind the line went a long way towards countering Derrick Henry's typically efficient performance and holding the Tide under 20 points for the first time this season.
- Corey Vereen. Leading the charge was an old new face in Corey Vereen. Vereen had shown glimpses of pass-rushing quality before, but he was overshadowed by Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, and after Maggitt's injury, he was passed over for the starting job by LaTroy Lewis. But Vereen was living in the backfield Saturday, recording two of Tennessee's five sacks and 2.5 total TFLs, tied with the always mayhem-inducing Jalen Reeves-Maybin for most on the Tennessee defense. Vereen building on this performance would go a long way towards preventing offensive lines from keying on Derek Barnett and bringing back 2014's fearsome pass rush.
- Preventing the big play/finishing drives (defense). Big plays had destroyed Tennessee most of the season. But against Alabama, the Vols' defense kept everything in front of them. They allowed no runs of 20 or more yards and no plays of 30 or more yards. They made Alabama drive the field, and that was a big factor in Alabama scoring just 19 points on six scoring opportunities, a 3.2 average that represented a huge step up from allowing 6.2 (Oklahoma), 7.0 (Florida), 4.2 (Arkansas), and 4.3 (Georgia) in their first four games against major competition.
- Moving the ball against an elite defense. According to S&P+, the Vols played four top 15 defenses in 2014. Against one (Alabama), they moved the ball decently, but only after falling in a 27-0 hole. Against the other three, Tennessee managed 191, 233, and 279 yards, with the third only eclipsing 250 because of a trick play in which the special teams unit put up 31 yards. The Vols were under 3.5 yards per play in the first two and hovering right around four in the third. In 2015, the Tennessee offense has taken a clear step forward. Against the first top fifteen defense on their schedule, the Vols put up 419 yards, relying on trickery for 82 of them but still averaging roughly five yards per play otherwise. Against the first top five defense on their schedule, Tennessee repeated the performance, gaining over 300 yards and averaging 5.0 yards per play. It's not an elite performance, but against a defense that has given up just 4.0 yards per play this season (tied with Missouri for fourth nationally), it's another data point in a clear trend up for the offense. According to S&P+, Tennessee still plays two more top 20 defenses this year (Missouri and Vanderbilt), and they'd be well-served to continue this trend if they wish to finish the regular season on a winning streak.
- Special teams. Special teams have been a consistent strength for the Vols this season, but the special teams unit let Tennessee down Saturday. The third phase of the game was Tennessee's one clear advantage going into Tuscaloosa, and failing to win that area was a major contributor to the loss. After out-dueling pretty much everyone he's faced all season, Trevor Daniel lost the battle to his Alabama counterpart, averaging 6.6 fewer yards-per-punt and downing two fewer punts inside the 20. Evan Berry came into the game leading the nation in return yards, but he finished with just one return for 31 yards--the same average that Alabama returner Kenyan Drake managed in two returns. And, most obviously, Aaron Medley continued his struggles in 2015, missing three long field goals*, while Alabama made both their attempts. Even factoring out the strip-sack that essentially ended the game, Alabama won the battle of average starting field position. The Vols' special teams needed to make a difference, and they didn't.
- Letting Alabama out. Tennessee did great work at creating negative plays on defense and of preventing big plays from Alabama's offense. But they sacrificed somewhere, and that was allowing the mid-range completion. There were 12 instances in which Jake Coker dropped back to pass with the Tide way behind the chains (defined here as 1st and 20+, 2nd and 10+, or 3rd and 10+). In five of those instances, the Tennessee defense made something happen. Two sacks, two more throwaways under pressure that could've easily been flagged for intentional grounding, one interception. In the other seven, Coker completed six passes for 124 yards, netting five first downs and turning the sixth from a 2nd and 14 to a 3rd and 1 (which the Tide would convert). Ten TFLs and no big plays allowed were big factors in holding the Tide to their lowest point total of the season. But the Tennessee defense had trouble preventing big plays, creating negative plays, and still being efficient against the pass. 50% of the time that Coker dropped back with the Tide way behind the chains, Alabama got 10+ yards. That jumps to 75% when you factor out the plays where the Vols pass rush got to him. Simply put: Tennessee's corners didn't hold up their end of the bargain.
- Quality of competition. Alabama, ranked 3rd in the F/+ computer rankings (which combine Bill Connelly's S&P+ with Brian Fremeau's FEI), closes a season-opening stretch in which every FBS opponent on the Vols' schedule ranked in the top 50. The next five games, on the other hand, feature zero opponents in the top 50, with no opponent ranked higher than #68 Vanderbilt. If the first half of the season was about proving you can play with the big boys (which, with the exception of a horrendous game against arguably the worst FBS team on their first-half schedule, the Vols did successfully), the second half is about proving you can separate from the dregs. The Vols lost to Missouri and eeked out wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina in 2014. In 2015, they need to show that they are a cut above. Jones has been good so far about keeping Tennessee focused from week-to-week, but when the quality of competition drops this dramatically, it isn't an easy task. And if the Vols want this season to be a clear step up from the 2010 to 2014 mire, it is a vital one.
- Counting on the defense to preserve a late lead. Since Butch Jones and John Jancek came to town, Tennessee has had eight games in which the Vols have had a one-possession lead in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter with the defense on the field trying to protect the lead. Those instances:
- September 28, 2013. Tennessee leads South Alabama 31-24. Ball at South Alabama 13. South Alabama drives 79 yards to Tennessee 8, throws INT in end zone. Tennessee wins 31-24.
- October 5, 2013. Tennessee leads Georgia 31-24. Ball at Georgia 25. Georgia drives 75 yards for a touchdown. Georgia wins 34-31 in overtime.
- November 23, 2013. Tennessee leads Vanderbilt 10-7. Ball at Vanderbilt 8. Vanderbilt drives 92 yards for a touchdown. Vanderbilt wins 14-10.
- November 29, 2014. Tennessee leads Vanderbilt 24-17. Ball at Vanderbilt 20. Vanderbilt drives 31 yards to Tennessee 49, turns the ball over on downs. Tennessee wins 24-17.
- September 12, 2015. Tennessee leads Oklahoma 17-10. Ball at Oklahoma 40. Oklahoma drives 60 yards for a touchdown. Oklahoma wins 31-24 in double overtime.
- September 26, 2015. Tennessee leads Florida 27-21. Ball at Florida 41. Florida drives 59 yards for a touchdown. Florida wins 28-27.
- October 10, 2015. Tennessee leads Georgia 38-31. Ball at Georgia 1. Georgia drives 74 yards to Tennessee 25, clock expires. Tennessee wins 38-31.
- October 24, 2015. Tennessee leads Alabama 14-13. Ball at Alabama 29. Alabama drives 71 yards for a touchdown. Alabama wins 19-14.
- The Butch Jones offensive cookie-cutter. At this point, this might be the clearest trend of Butch Jones' tenure at Tennessee. When facing a good defense, Butch Jones' offenses look good early and get worse as the game goes on. While the Vols were able to put together an out-of-character (but excellent) four-play scoring drive in the fourth, this game held true to form. First two drives: 125 yards. Next five drives: 49 yards. And when you factor out the drive in which Tennessee was trying to run out the clock and got a great individual effort from Hurd, that 49 drops to 13. As is the pattern, the early game script worked, and everything else was tough sledding.
- Offensive discipline slipping in crunch time. Tennessee is not a heavily penalized team. But late in the game, the discipline seems to slip. Against Oklahoma, the Vols were flagged for a false start on their last drive of regulation and again on their final drive in overtime. Against Florida, the Vols were flagged twice on their last drive of the game, and again against Alabama, Tennessee picked up an illegal formation penalty that put them behind the chains on their final drive of the game. All five penalties were of the five-yard variety, but they were key elements in the stalling of critical drives: after four of the five penalties, Tennessee was held without a first down. The Vols failed to score on all four drives and failed to win all three games. Add that to the defensive struggles, and it's clear that late game play must improve.
*There may be those who point out Jones continually sending Medley out to kick as a sign of a continuing and disturbing trend of overly conservative coaching or of failing to understand the limitations of his players. But I would dispute both claims. To the latter, Medley has struggled with accuracy, but he has consistently showed a powerful leg that gives the coaches ample reason to believe that attempted field goals beyond 50 yards aren't a lost cause. Yes, they're low percentage plays, but Medley can make them. He was within a yard from 55 against Florida and hit the upright from 51 against Alabama (albeit on a play that was blown dead before the kick). We don't know his percentages in practice, but if Butch Jones told me Medley was good for 20-25% of his kicks beyond 50 and that his current dismal stats were due to sample size, I'd believe him**. As for the decisions? One was the last play of the half, with the only alternative to strike at the end zone from 34 yards out--a low percentage play against a good defense. One was on 4th and 10, which is perhaps makable enough to give an aggressive coach pause, but which isn't makable enough to look tempting against a defense like Alabama's. And one was on 4th and 16 from the 26, a situation that has faced 15 coaches since 2005, with precisely zero electing to send out the offense. It's hard to argue that three field goal attempts were overly conservative.
**To be more precise, I wouldn't believe Butch Jones saying that, because I've thought since the Oklahoma game (and even more so since the Florida game) that he makes up numbers to justify his own (in those cases bad) decisions. But based on what I've seen from Medley, I would believe those numbers coming from a source I didn't independently distrust.