One of the questions we've consistently asked this season is to assign a percentage of responsibility to the struggles of the Vol passing game: between Josh Dobbs, the wide receivers, the protection, and the play calling, what is most responsible for Tennessee's struggles through the air? There was hope a shaky Arkansas pass defense could cure some of what had ailed them, but while the Vols were more consistent through the air against the Razorbacks than they'd been against Oklahoma and Florida, receivers still struggled to get involved and Tennessee still came up short in the second half.
As a result the Vols are throwing for less than 200 yards per game and less than seven yards per attempt, both ranking in the bottom half of the SEC and all of college football. There is certainly hope the numbers will improve when competition decreases, but failing to open things up more fully against the Razorbacks means we probably shouldn't hope to see a significant change in what Tennessee, as it is currently constructed, will do through the air this fall. And even if progress comes later against the South Carolinas and Kentuckys of the world, there will be little solace in it as the Vols torched those two last year with almost the exact same offensive personnel. Throwing for big yards against bad teams on the schedule will do little to provide hope Tennessee can move the ball through the air against the good teams it has come close to beating, and from here there are only two good teams left on the schedule this year, and they're next.
The Vols have been close in part because they run the ball well enough to win; 225 yards per game is good for 19th nationally. But the longer we watch this team, the more I believe Team 119's identity is less about running the football and more about minimizing risk. This is, in part, how the Vols gave away leads against Oklahoma and Florida. It's not an outright terrible strategy; it's been good enough to give Tennessee a chance to win every game, and could continue to do so. But it is a limited strategy, perhaps by design, and puts a definite ceiling on this offense.
Throughout Butch Jones' time the Vols have failed to utilize the deep ball. Tennessee had 12 pass plays of 30+ yards in 2013 and 13 last year, averaging exactly one per game. So far this year the Vols have six pass plays of 30+ yards in five games.
A failure to go deep is nothing new for the Vols, but what has suffered this year is the intermediate passing game. Last year Tennessee had 122 pass plays of 10+ yards (46th nationally), 9.3 per game. But so far this year the Vols have hit just 35 passes of 10+ yards, 91st nationally and trailing only the team with Leonard Fournette in the SEC. Tennessee, of course, was no passing juggernaut last year, but has regressed in the intermediate passing game to just seven 10+ yard completions per game, a difference of 2.3 fewer per game. Any one of those could have made a difference between winning and losing against Oklahoma, Florida, or Arkansas.
Almost halfway through his junior season, the Vols aren't getting much different in the passing game from Josh Dobbs than they were getting from Justin Worley, other than risk management:
Last year Dobbs faced far easier defenses than what Worley saw, but he's getting the full dose this season. The hope was if Dobbs could simply make a natural progression as a passer from his sophomore to junior season, playing as the unquestioned quarterback for the first time in preseason, Tennessee's offense would be in great shape because of the strength of the running game. This strength certainly includes Dobbs, a huge advantage over Worley not represented in the chart. We said in preseason the Vols wouldn't even necessarily need to hit home runs with Dobbs in this way, and could instead consistently beat teams with tempo and lengthy drives (which is basically what the Vols have done in building early leads this year). But now, not only are the Vols not hitting any home runs in the passing game, they're struggling to hit doubles.
And they can't even get receivers on base. Two of Tennessee's three leading pass catchers are tight end Ethan Wolf and running back Alvin Kamara. The two leaders in yards are Wolf and true freshman Preston Williams, who got 98 of his 117 against an FCS opponent. No receiver is on pace to gain more than 300 yards this year, which is worse-than-Clawfense bad.
But maybe this was the plan. Not the receivers part, but the taking no chances downfield and relying on the ground game part. Maybe they looked at what they had on the offensive line, had uncertainties about what Dobbs could do downfield, and then looked at Dobbs' feet, Hurd, Kamara, and a once-healthy defense, and said, "We can win this year playing this way." Don't take many chances in the passing game. Use tempo and grind away. Win field position, turnovers, and special teams.
And the Vols are doing all of those things. And they have almost been enough to be undefeated. Almost.
Almost and heartbreak make great friends. What's the way forward? Do you take more risks downfield knowing you have a quarterback who may hurt you as much as he helps you? Are we good enough/healthy enough at receiver to play that game? I don't think you think about making a change at quarterback right now because of what you will surrender in the run game without Dobbs.
Or do you continue to believe in the almost, and try to keep doing what you're doing only one percent better each day?
There are no easy answers here, with only heartbreak behind and the two most difficult games of the year ahead. But it seems Team 119 is built, first and foremost, to minimize risk. It has almost worked. But it is ironically a narrow ledge to walk in this league, and as we've seen in each of these losses, the fall is steep.