The Vols opened Saturday with the expected script, jumping out to a 17-0 lead against an overmatched South Carolina team. After that, it got ugly, with Tennessee ceding the entire advantage before ultimately winning by a field goal, 27-24. What went wrong, to take the Vols from an easy win in Lexington to a nerve-wracker against a team looking up in the standings at the Wildcats? And is there anything positive that the Vols can take from this week? Here's the South Carolina edition of the Trending Report.
- Scoreboard. Tennessee did a lot of things wrong on Saturday. They did a lot of familiar things wrong on Saturday. A lot of familiar things that had led to losses earlier in the season. But Saturday, they didn't lead to a loss. Nobody is going to bring their A game every week, and while the degree of difficulty was certainly less than in previous close games, the fact remains that Tennessee made a lot of mistakes and still got a win. That's a vital skill to have if you have dreams of being an SEC contender in the near future.
- Aaron Medley. After three misses against Alabama (all from 40+, all but one from 50+) had fans screaming for his head or lambasting Butch Jones for throwing him to the wolves, Medley has quietly made three straight field goals in the last two games, two of them from over 40 yards. In his first 20 games at Tennessee, Medley was just 2/10 from 40+, but in the second half of his sophomore season, he's giving coaches, fans, and himself reason to believe that better things are ahead.
- Opponents scheming to take away Jalen Hurd. At this point, it's no secret that Jalen Hurd and the rushing attack drive the bus for the Tennessee offense. And for the second week in a row, opponents have schemed to stop Hurd and take their chances in pass defense. And it's worked. Hurd got just 61 yards on 18 carries against Kentucky, and after a big first quarter against South Carolina (10 carries, 60 yards), Hurd got just 37 yards on 13 carries the rest of the way. The Vols shouldn't expect this to stop. Opponents know the running game is a weapon, and they'll take it away. It's up to the Vols' players and coaches to make them pay elsewhere.
- The traditional passing game. In the second half against South Carolina, Josh Dobbs attempted 12 passes to tight ends and receivers, completing seven of them for 125 yards. Throw in a pair of sacks and the total drops to 116 yards on 14 attempts, but that's still good for 8.3 yards per attempt (including sacks) and was a big reason that the Vols converted 5 of their last 8 third downs of six or more yards.
- Von Pearson. Tennessee's most dangerous receiver from 2014 has finally made his mark on the 2015 season, catching eight passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. With Marquez North still nursing an injury and Josh Malone and Preston Williams still struggling to find consistency, sustained quality from Pearson would fill a desperate need on the Tennessee offense.
- Separation. The Vols' last five games of the season looked like an opportunity to separate from the bottom-tier teams on their conference schedule, proving themselves to be definitively clear of the bottom half of the SEC East. And for five quarters, that's what happened, with Tennessee outscoring Kentucky and South Carolina 66-21. And then for the last three quarters, it didn't. South Carolina made things uncomfortable to the very end, and the state of the Vols relative to the bottom half of the East looks a lot like last year, where Tennessee destroyed Kentucky but played with fire against the last-place team in the division. They will have an opportunity to change that storyline in the last two weeks of the season, but there is plenty of work left to do.
- Focus. On paper, this game looked like a lot of other games this season, with Tennessee jumping out to a big lead and letting the other team storm back. But, while the play was similar, this one felt different. Tennessee didn't feel like a team that got a lead and played the rest of the game in fear of a comeback. It felt like a team that got the lead and played like they didn't really believe the opponent was much of a threat. Tennessee had four possessions on Saturday where they were not in the lead. They scored 17 points on those four possessions. On nine possessions with a lead, the Vols scored just 10 points.
- Ball security. This was a downward trend against Kentucky, and it kept pointing down against South Carolina. Tennessee again put the ball on the ground three times, gifting South Carolina possession inside the Vols 35 twice. With remaining games against three offenses that struggle to score without help from their defense, taking better care of the football is imperative.
- The runner-centric offense. After two drives in which South Carolina offered pretty much no resistance to anything, the Gamecocks clamped down on defense and schemed to stop the short stuff. It worked. In the second half, Jalen Hurd had nine carries for just 15 yards, Dobbs added just 17 on five carries (excluding sacks), and five passes to running backs netted Tennessee a total of 11 yards. In all, 19 second half plays were designed to go to the runners, and those plays garnered just 43 yards, a total of just 2.3 yards per play against the worst run defense in the SEC.
- Context. As you'll see in the "Holding Steady" category (and, if you have followed the Vols this season, as you already know), the South Carolina game bears a lot of surface similarities to previous games against Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas. But underneath the surface similarities, the game felt a lot different. Maybe the loss of focus bore some similarities to the Arkansas game, but all three of those games involved failures to put away a good team, and this one was a failure to put away a bad team (of course, if South Carolina plays this close against Florida and Clemson, we can revisit that claim). While Tennessee has already played all the good teams on their regular season schedule, they've played just two of their four worst SEC opponents. There is enough data against good teams to find a pattern. Against bad teams, there is one thoroughgoing blowout and one where the Vols let their opponent off the mat. It may be tempting to lump this game in to the existing trends (and in some specific ways, it may be appropriate), but right now, it's too early. If Tennessee struggles to put away Missouri and Vanderbilt, we can conclude that they aren't good or focused enough to separate from the bottom of the SEC. But if they win their last three easily, they can establish themselves as a solid mid-tier SEC team who happened to play one poor game against an inferior opponent.
- Confidence in the eight-win regular season. The Vols will still be favored in the last three, but after the combination of their struggles with South Carolina and Vanderbilt's performance in Gainesville, no one should take 8-4 as a foregone conclusion.
- Fast starts. I've said before that Butch Jones' teams have a remarkable ability to avoid letdowns, and after this week's performance, it's time to clarify that statement. There have been times where they've lost focus (2013 South Alabama and 2015 South Carolina are the clearest examples), but they always show up for the opening whistle. And not only do they show up, they show up with a plan that works. In three of Tennessee's last four SEC games, they had over 140 yards of offense before their opponent topped 15. In the fourth, the Vols had 125 yards on their first two drives against arguably the best defense in the country. Butch Jones has been subject to some deserved criticism this season, but simplistic "good recruiter, bad coach" critiques are faced with the difficult task of explaining how his Vols teams so consistently get the best of their opponents early in the game. The Vols are currently #5 in the nation in Offensive S&P+ in the first quarter and #4 in Defensive S&P+ in the first quarter. Stop every game after four possessions and you have a Tennessee team sitting at 5-1-2 (the sole loss coming via a fluke defensive touchdown in a game the Vols were dominating), with Butch Jones having the inside track on SEC Coach of the Year.
- Blowing leads like it's going out of style. The problem with the previous trend is that the whole game isn't made up of "start." Tennessee has now blown four double-digit leads in nine games this season. The Vols have only had one double-digit lead against a major conference opponent that they have not blown. In Jones' three years at Tennessee, the Vols have blown seven two-score leads and have just thrice come back from two-score deficits. Everyone has their own favorite explanation, some more plausible than others (my own opinion is that the culprit is a combination of conservatism and struggles to make adjustments without a week of prep time--it's too consistent to be on personnel or general football acumen), but whatever the explanation, the problem hasn't gone away, and it will hang over Jones' head until it does.
- Protecting a late lead (offense). Tennessee has now had four possessions this season where they had the ball and the lead in the last few minutes of the game, needing only to run out the clock to ensure victory. On those four possessions, the Vols have called 11 run plays and one pass play. They have gained a total of 21 yards and, most importantly, zero first downs. Four times, the offense had a chance to win the game by merely holding the ball. Four times, the offense gave the ball back and put the game on the Tennessee defense. Three-and-outs in the four-minute offense happen to the best of teams, but when the same thing happens four times in a row, it's not a fluke, it's a flaw. And while the play-calling has gotten more defensible over time, the Vols came into this situation at the end of a half that featured 8.3 yards per play on 14 called plays in the traditional passing game and just 2.1 yards per play on 16 plays called for the runners. With the Gamecocks keying on the run, it's not hard to wonder whether a well-timed passing play might've put the game away.
- Protecting a late lead (defense). In Butch Jones' tenure at Tennessee, the Vols have now had nine games in which their defense was on the field in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, trying to preserve a one-score lead. In eight(!) of those nine situations, Tennessee's opponent made it inside the Tennessee 30, scoring five touchdowns, throwing one interception, fumbling once, and running out of time once. All credit goes to Malik Foreman for forcing a fumble and winning the game for the Vols, but a great individual play shouldn't obscure the fact that Tennessee allowed South Carolina to go 63 yards in just 48 seconds, putting the Gamecocks in prime position to tie or win the game before that all-important fumble. In nine cases, Vols opponents have needed an average of 78 yards for a touchdown and have gotten an average of 67. In more than half the cases, the defense has failed outright, and in most of the others, they've played with fire.
- Miscellaneous repeat failures. Pick something that has irritated you about the 2015 Vols. Most likely, it happened again Saturday. Punting inside the opponents' 40? Jones' standard conservatism was back this week. Dropped passes? Josh Malone dropped a perfectly-thrown ball that would've put the Vols up seven in the fourth quarter. Discipline slipping? The Vols had you covered with three personal foul penalties. The defense giving up fourth down conversions? South Carolina tied the game at 17 by converting a fourth-and-goal from the seven. With the possible exception of the personal fouls, none of these were enough to write home about on their own, but the parade of tired talking points showing up on the field put a capital "U" on an ugly win.
- Mrs. I_S, good luck charm. Our second date was a US Open Cup match between the Carolina Railhawks and Chivas USA. Carolina advanced on penalties. Since then, she's accompanied me to a Coastal Carolina football game (CCU beat NC A&T), three Carolina Hurricanes hockey games (wins over Calgary, Philadelphia, and New Jersey), and three Tennessee football games: Iowa, Georgia, and South Carolina. You're welcome.