One week after continuing the 2015 theme with a heartbreaking loss in Tuscaloosa, a trip to Lexington to face the Kentucky Wildcats was just what the doctor ordered for Tennessee. The Vols dominated from start to finish, and while it took a while to show up on the scoreboard, a 28-point third quarter outburst left no doubt in Tennessee's 52-21 win. The Vols' 52 points represented a 38-point increase over the previous week against Alabama, so it's not hard to conclude that things worked better against the Cats than they did against the Tide. But what is really trending up, and what differences are merely due to a lesser opponent? The Trending Report is here to sort it out.
- Separation. Much has been made about Tennessee's struggles with high-quality opponents over the last several years, but equally troubling has been an inability to separate from the SEC's middle and lower classes. The Vols' 50-16 over Kentucky last season was their first double-digit win over a team that finished 2-6 or better in the SEC since 2010. And that game was about as favorably placed as possible for the Vols, who were coming off a bye and facing a Wildcats team playing their eighth straight game and fifth straight SEC game (the previous four all against teams that finished .500 or better in conference play). This year, the schedule-placement was not nearly so kind, with Tennessee playing on the road at night while coming off a tough loss to a huge rival. It didn't matter. The 52-21 win put to bed any thoughts of Kentucky competing with Tennessee for a place in the SEC East pecking order. The Vols likely won't get another chance to beat a team with 2+ SEC wins this season, but they do have three more SEC games against teams that aren't nearly as bad as the SEC dregs have been in the past. It may not be an opportunity for a signature win, but it is an opportunity to put significant distance between Tennessee and the bottom four teams in the East--a group that had included the Vols for the first half of the decade.
- Explosion! Big plays have been a consistent problem for the Tennessee offense this season, and while the Vols have still been able to move the ball. . . well, there's a reason you've heard of "bend-but-don't-break" defenses. It's hard to score touchdowns when you're marching down the field at 4-5 yards a pop. When you're running 15 plays in a row, you're probably going to make a mistake at some point, whether it being a turnover or a penalty or busted play that puts you behind the sticks. And if you can't make things happen in passing downs, you're stuck kicking. If you're not sure how an efficient-but-not-explosive offense can cause problems in practice, look no further than the first quarter against Georgia, where the Vols were outgaining the Dawgs 152-15 yet trailing 7-3, or Saturday night's game in Lexington, where the Vols led just 10-7 after four possessions (all scoring opportunities) despite outgaining Kentucky 162-9. But Saturday, a Vols offense that hadn't been explosive all year exploded. A 75-yard pass to Josh Malone put Tennessee up 17-14, and five plays later, a 63-yard run from Alvin Kamara set up the score that put the Vols up double-digits. All four of Tennessee's touchdown drives of more than five yards included a play of 25+ yards, and all three of Tennessee's touchdown drives starting in their own territory included a play of 35+ yards. Efficiency is great, but generating explosive plays is one of the best ways to turn yards into touchdowns. Saturday, Tennessee did that.
- Special teams. After struggling against Alabama, Tennessee's special teams play was exceptional in Lexington. Much-maligned Aaron Medley made his only field goal attempt, a 44-yarder early in the second quarter, and nobody noticed, because the return game was stealing all the headlines. Evan Berry tied a school record with his third kickoff return touchdown of the season (on his only attempt), and Cam Sutton followed it with an 84-yard punt return that put the cap on the 52-21 romp. It's hard to ask for much more than that.
- Early 2014-style defense. The defense was trending up last week, when it looked a lot more like the unit that started the 2014 season so well than the one that had struggled to open the 2015 slate. That continued this week, with defensive ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen leading the way. After a dominant freshman campaign, Barnett had struggled to start the 2015 season, recording just one sack in the first five games. But he's turned it on lately, with two sacks against Kentucky bringing his total to four in the last three games. And Barnett's reemergence is in no small part due to Corey Vereen, who recorded a pair of tackles-for-loss and has now tied for the team lead in TFLs two weeks in a row. It's hard to say why Vereen, who had shown potential in the past, has just started to put things together, but his partnership with Barnett led a Tennessee defense that held Kentucky to 2/13 on third downs and allowed just one drive of over 30 yards until the game was already out-of-reach. And we can't finish a discussion on the defense without mentioning true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr., who perfectly read a screen pass to nab an interception which he would return to the Kentucky 4, setting up the touchdown that truly put the game out of reach. The defense is finally starting to figure things out, and with only three seniors in the regular rotation, that's nothing but good for the future.
- Overcautious referees. With everything we're finding out about concussions, keeping the players safe should be extremely high on the list of priorities for football right now. But Emmanuel Moseley was ejected and suspended for the first half next week after delivering an absolutely textbook hit, leading with his shoulder and driving into the chest of the Kentucky receiver, who was separated from the ball. When the announcers and rival fans are shocked that a call against you is upheld on replay, you know it's a bad call.
- Ball security. The Vols put the ball on the ground three times. One was recovered by Kentucky and returned for a touchdown. Another put the Vols in a third-and-long situation that stalled a promising drive. And while Dobbs finally hit on a deep ball, he threw several high balls over the middle that were just begging to be picked (the inevitable INT finally came in the fourth quarter, when the game was already out of reach). With the Vols generating big plays in all three phases of the game, it didn't end up hurting Tennessee, but if there was one thing to be worried about in this game, it was taking care of the football.
- Keeping an even keel. Through more than two-and-a-half seasons at Tennessee, Butch Jones' most consistent strength outside of recruiting has been getting the team ready to play every game. Saturday's game fell in a tough spot, with the Vols playing a road game against an easy-to-overlook opponent just a week after a one-score loss to a rival. And yet the Vols showed no hint of letdown. I've seen it argued that the Arkansas game sandwiched between Florida and Georgia was a letdown game, but you wouldn't know it from looking at a first half performance that saw the Vols inside the Arkansas red zone four times. The second half play against the Hogs definitely showed signs of a team that was shell-shocked after blowing three double-digit leads in four weeks, but I can't find an example in three years where Jones' Vols have sleep-walked out of the gate. They're always ready to play.
- Best against worst? According to Bill C's opponent-adjusted stats, Tennessee's three best performances of the year have been against Bowling Green, Western Carolina, and Kentucky. These metrics are not perfect (I'm still mystified by how his formulas judged the performance against Alabama to be merely average), but this is consistent with the Vols' performance last season, where they played like a top 20 team against teams outside the top 20 and like a solid Sun Belt team against the best teams on the schedule. Even if you're skeptical (as is appropriate) about the Alabama numbers, it's concerning to see the trend continue. By next season, the Vols should have the talent to put up eight wins merely by beating up inferior teams, but if they're overly reliant on a talent-advantage to win, they're going to continue to struggle to get over the hump against teams like Florida and Alabama. That said, thinking back on this season, I wonder whether this trend is really one of best against worst or whether it's a trend of fading in the fourth quarter. You could argue that Bowling Green, Western Carolina, and Kentucky represent the three worst teams on Tennessee's schedule, but there's no doubt that those are the only games of the season in which the fourth quarter stats are filtered out as "garbage time." Given the Vols' fourth quarter struggles in all four losses, what looks like a best against worst trend may just be another indication that the Vols have struggled to close out close games (for what it's worth, the S&P+ numbers see the Vols as a top ten first quarter team and as Wake Forest-level bad in the fourth). While Tennessee doesn't have a good team left on the schedule, it does play a good defense when the Vols make the trek to Columbia, Missouri in a few weeks (and possibly another one when they host Vanderbilt the following week). How Tennessee performs on offense against the Tigers and Commodores will be one of the most interesting things to watch in the month of November as Vols fans try to determine just how good they should expect the offense to be in 2015.