After three games of "just good enough" on offense, Tennessee was truly great Saturday, lighting up a strong Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 44 points and paving the way for a 53-28 victory. What got better to give the Vols their exclamation point? And were there any problems hiding in the big victory? The last Trending Report of 2015* is here to tell you.
- Separation. Tennessee had four games this season against teams that finished below .500 in SEC play. As has been the norm in the last few seasons, the Vols crushed Kentucky, 52-21. The difference this season was the other three games. The last five times the Vols played a non-Kentucky team that finished below .500 in SEC play, the final scores were 27-21 (OT), 48-51 (4 OT), 17-31, 45-42 (OT), and 24-17. None were safe (for the Vols) in the closing minutes, and Tennessee's average scoring margin was -0.2. With the Vanderbilt romp in the books, those scores this season were 27-24, 19-8, and 53-28. Only one game was in doubt in the fourth quarter, and the Vols' average scoring margin was 16.3. In these games in the last three seasons, Tennessee has looked like a typical bottom-half SEC East team, just one that happened to have Kentucky's number. This year, Tennessee has not been perfect against the bottom of the East, letting South Carolina hang in the game until the bitter end, but they have undeniably been a cut above. The Vols have three SEC wins by double-digits for the first time since 2010, and they have two four-score conference wins** for the first time since 2003.
- Three-headed running monster. The Tennessee offense had been trending down for the last three weeks, but this week, against a defense that came in not far behind some of the best units in the SEC, the Vols ran wild. Workhorse Jalen Hurd ran for 120 yards (on 6.32 yards per carry), and Josh Dobbs (8.45 YPC) and Alvin Kamara (6.19 YPC) both added more than 90 yards on the ground. Those numbers led an offense that racked up 523 yards and 6.79 yards per play, far outstripping Tennessee's previous performances against good defenses and sliding slightly (read: 0.2 YPP or less) behind their games against (vastly inferior defenses from) Bowling Green and Kentucky for third-best statistical performance of the season. Combine this with big performances against Florida and Georgia, and it looks like Tennessee's offense can do serious damage when everything is clicking, no matter what defense is in front of them.
- Killer instinct. Perhaps the Vols' biggest problem this season has been failure to turn a significant advantage into an insurmountable lead. They just haven't been able to step on the throat when the opponent was down. A 28-point third quarter against Kentucky may fit the bill, but there they scored two special teams touchdowns and a third on a drive that started inside the UK 5. It was a big quarter, but the offense didn't really have much to do with it. In the third quarter against Vanderbilt? The Vols had three drives on offense, spanning 181 yards (8.62 YPP) and netting two touchdowns (and pinning Vandy at their own 1 on the other drive). The defense also got three series in the third quarter, and after struggling in the first half, they allowed two yards on nine plays and netted two points of their own, turning a 27-14 halftime lead into a 43-14 romp.
- Going for it on 4th and goal. This goes with the last point. When you have a fourth and goal at the one, in most situations, the smart play and the "killer instinct" play are the same: go for it. And despite a history of kicking in such situations, Butch Jones went for it against Vanderbilt. And the Vols didn't get it. But they pinned Vandy deep in their own territory, got two points from their defense, and got the ball inside Vanderbilt territory on their next possession, field position that they were able to convert into seven more points. And this illustrates exactly why the aggressive call was the right one. If you make it, you get seven points. But even if you don't, you put your defense in great position and very likely get excellent field position on your next drive.
- Special teams. Special teams have been excellent all season, but they were noteworthy again Saturday. At this point, opposing kickers are so scared of Evan Berry that they'd rather squib than take the chance of a big return. But Vandy had to worry about more than kickoffs, and they were unable to prevent Cam Sutton from getting his second punt return touchdown of the season (Tennessee's sixth special teams score). And to top it all off, the suddenly anonymous Aaron Medley hit a 47-yard field goal. After drawing the fans' ire by starting the season 9/17 overall and 1/7 from beyond 40 yards, Medley has quietly gone 11/12 overall and 4/4 from 40+ over the last five games, a finish that hints at the development of much-needed consistency for the big-legged sophomore.
- Coming out strong on defense. As good as Tennessee was on offense, Vanderbilt matched the Vols stride-for-stride through much of the first half. The Commodores actually outgained Tennessee in the first half, and as announcer Andre Ware continually reminded us, they were one poor Kyle Shurmur decision away from three first half touchdowns, all on drives of 70+ yards. And this from a Vanderbilt offense that had just three touchdown drives of more than one play in their last six*** games. The defense clamped down in the third quarter, but in the first half, the much-maligned Vandy offensive line was dominating the Tennessee defense. Tailback Ralph Webb was over 100 yards by halftime, and the Vols' offensive resurgence was--for thirty minutes--marred by arguably the worst half the Tennessee defense has played all season.
- Coming out strong on offense. This trend has been like clockwork all season and has been relatively consistent throughout Jones' tenure at Tennessee. It didn't stop this week, as the Vols scored touchdowns on their first and third possessions and got points on each of their first four.
- Depth on defense. Because of Tennessee's struggles to put the pedal down on offense, we haven't seen too many games where the Vols' second-teamers play most of the fourth quarter, but Saturday brought back memories of the Taxslayer Bowl against Iowa. Tennessee was dominating thoroughly through three quarters, but the second-team defense allowed the opposition to finish with a seemingly-respectable 28 points, in this case allowing two Vandy touchdowns in the last five minutes. With only three senior starters, the Vols shouldn't be decimated on defense following this season, but if Cam Sutton goes pro, Tennessee will lose their top three players in the secondary, pushing a number of today's second-teamers into 2016's starting spots. The defense needs to take another step forward if the Vols want to be elite, and if the defense is going to take a step forward, they could use some serious offseason development from their freshmen and sophomores.
*pending bowl destination
**If you're wondering about the last time Tennessee had two three-score conference wins, that was in 2009.
***I am not making this up.