With a third straight FBS loss, 24-20 to Arkansas Saturday, a Tennessee season that began with such high hopes is quickly turning sour. What is causing the problems, and is there any area in which the Vols are showing real improvement? The Trending Report is here to sort it out.
- Finishing drives (defense). Finishing drives on defense has been one of Tennessee's biggest problems this season. Florida only made four trips inside the Vols' 40, but they scored touchdowns on all four drives. Oklahoma got touchdowns on their last four trips inside the Tennessee 40. After Arkansas scored on their first two trips, the Vols' defense had allowed touchdowns on ten(!) straight scoring opportunities by FBS opponents. That's unspeakably bad. But in the second half, it got better. The Razorbacks made three second half trips inside the Vols' 40, and they were held to just seven points, having a field goal blocked and turning the ball over once on downs. Arkansas still scored touchdowns on three of five scoring opportunities (excluding end-of-half), which is not a good look for the Vols' defense, but it's better than five out of five.
- Special teams. A kick return touchdown and a blocked field goal were the difference between a four-point loss and a 14-point loss, and the Vols were one flag away from a second special teams touchdown and a shot at overtime. Special teams have been a strength all season, but they were yet another step better Saturday. A doinked chip shot from Aaron Medley--which he made up for with a long make in the third--coupled with the punt return penalty to smudge an excellent performance, but special teams kept the Vols in the game long after the offense and defense had been overrun.
- Gazing longingly at other rebuilds. Florida, in their first year under a new coach and trying to rebuild from the Muschamp disaster, just thumped a top five team 38-10. Michigan, in their first year under a new coach trying to rebuild from the Hoke disaster, has outscored Power Five (and BYU) competition 94-0 in the last 11.5 quarters. Yes, the Dooley disaster was several notches worse than either Muschamp or Hoke, but Tennessee is also two years ahead of the Gators and Wolverines and hasn't even sniffed those kind of results.
- Finishing drives (offense). The Vols have struggled to put the ball in the end zone for much of Jones' tenure in Knoxville, with the nadir coming against Oklahoma, where Tennessee had three third quarter scoring opportunities--any one of which could've put the game out of reach--and netted a big, fat zero on the scoreboard. But after scoring touchdowns on three of five opportunities against Florida, the Vols were once again abysmal against Arkansas, scoring just 13 points on five scoring opportunities. It gets even worse when you realize that after a touchdown and a punt on the first two drives, Tennessee finished the first half with three straight red zone trips that yielded a grand total of three points. Score touchdowns and it's 35-17 at halftime. Get a relatively middle-of-the-road 13-point performance and it's 27-17. Tennessee was exemplary at moving the ball for a half, but not converting it into points took what should've been a sizable lead and turned it into a halftime deadlock.
- Putting yourself in a position to win. When you only look at the scoreboard, it looks like the Vols are consistently putting themselves in a position to win and choking at the end. When you look at the underlying statistics, you can see the scoreboard obscuring a nosedive in the most important elements of putting yourself in position to win. The biggest factors in winning are explosiveness (are you getting big plays and preventing the other team from doing so?) and success rate (how often are your plays successful and your opponent's plays unsuccessful?). Tennessee's offense, which has struggled with explosiveness all year, has dropped even further this week, to 108th in the country. An offense that's been consistently top 30 in success rate has dropped to 50th. And a defense that was a strength for most of the first four games was abysmal Saturday night, giving up 100 yards to two runners and big play after big play in the passing game--enough to drop to 87th on the year in explosiveness and 49th in success rate.
The simplest statistic that factors in both explosiveness and efficiency is yards-per-play. When you glance at Tennessee's schedule and see two blowout wins and three 50/50 games (losses though they may be), you probably expect to see the Vols with a healthy yards-per-play advantage on the season. What you actually see is Tennessee averaging 5.5 yards-per-play and allowing 5.6. Vols fans can say they were three plays away from 5-0 all they want (thanks special teams!), but a deeper look at their performance on offense and defense makes them look exactly like the 2-3 team they are.
Fan confidence in the program. What's the fastest you've ever seen a fan base go from "this man is leading us to championships" to no confidence in the program? Because it has happened in four weeks at Tennessee, and I haven't seen anything close to that in my time as a Tennessee fan. When Arkansas was driving in a four-point game in the second half, repeated crowd shots showed a stadium that had completely given up. This is not entirely on Jones--the weight of ten years has put a hair trigger on Vols fans' "mail it in" impulse. But four weeks ago, the majority opinion was that Jones was leading Tennessee back. And this week, it's shifted to resignation. That shift is remarkable. And while Jones has brought some of it on himself with on-field collapse after on-field collapse and shocking failure at press conference damage control, the players really deserve better. Whether they will get it is another question. The damage isn't irreparable, and the Vols have two more chances at big, energizing wins. But right now, the support from the stands is in a downward spiral.
- Preparation. And this is a good thing. Outside salesmanship (which includes but is not limited to recruiting), one of the biggest and most consistent strengths of this coaching staff has been having the team ready to play. The Trending Report can't remember them ever looking flat after a big win or a tough loss, and that's an unusual feat. But preparedness goes beyond the emotional even keel; it extends to the game plan, which continues to be excellent. Under Jones, the Vols have jumped out to early leads against quality opponents more often than you'd expect, building first half double-digit leads on South Carolina in 2013, Georgia in 2014, and Oklahoma and Florida in 2015. That didn't change this week, as Tennessee opened with a special teams touchdown and an 89-yard touchdown drive to take a 14-0 lead on the Hogs. We've been over the red zone struggles, but the fact remains that Tennessee's offense got into the red zone on four of the first five drives. The other one ended merely across midfield. The defense didn't start quite as well as the offense, but they still forced a Razorbacks team that had punted just seven times all season to punt four times in the first half. A look at quarterly S&P+ rankings confirm the eye test, as the Vols sport a top 25 first quarter offense on the season and a top 15 first half defense. For all their problems, starting the game has been a consistent strength of Butch Jones' Vols teams.
- Adjustments. Unfortunately for the Vols, preparation doesn't tell the whole story. Jones' staff has prepared well, but their ability to adjust in-game has been a consistent weakness. In 2.5 seasons, how many times have the Vols made adjustments in game that meaningfully increased their chances of winning? The Trending Report counts one*, and it was over two years ago. More often, it is Tennessee's opponents who are able to stop what Tennessee has done well and begin to mount a comeback. Saturday night against Arkansas was no different. The Vols had 275 yards in the first half and were averaging a healthy 6.0 yards per play. In the second half, the total yardage dropped to 90 and the yards-per-play to 3.8. For reference, that's a UCLA/Oklahoma State performance in the first half and a UCF/Charlotte performance in the second half. Again, a look at S&P+ confirms the eye test. The offense is 82nd in the third quarter S&P+ rankings on the season and 91st in the fourth. The defense is holding onto 26th in the third quarter S&P+ rankings but are 113th in the fourth. For the season, the offense is performing at Memphis/Nebraska/Indiana levels in the first quarter (note: this is ahead of Clemson and Ohio State) and at Rice/Rutgers levels in the second half. The defense is performing at Ole Miss/LSU levels in the first half and Army/Georgia State levels in the fourth quarter. With this pattern in its third year, it looks like this is just the way things are** for this coaching staff. The Vols need to get a lead early, because things are just going to get worse as the game wears on.
- Blowing a two-score lead. Put the last two trends together, and what do you get? The Vols have now blown two-score fourth quarter leads three times in the last two years and have blown two-score leads in general five times in the last two seasons (and if you make it two full, 365-day years instead of a season-and-a-half, that number jumps to six). On the other side of the ledger is four minutes in Columbia, the only time since October 5, 2013 that the Vols have come back to tie or take the lead after being down two scores. This is quickly becoming Tennessee's identity, and it isn't getting any better unless the Vols learn to counter after their opponents adjust.
**One natural thought here might be that lack of depth is the problem. And on defense, this may be a contributing factor (although with the amount that Tennessee controlled the ball in the first three quarters against Florida and the first half against Arkansas, it's still a little hard to believe). But on offense, the dropoff comes far too early in the game. The most natural explanation is that the scripted plays at the beginning of the game are going well and that everything else is going poorly. And unlike depth, that can't be fixed in recruiting.