Earlier, we took a look at how Tennessee's scoring offense ranked compared to other Vols units in the post-Fulmer era. Now it's time to turn our eyes to the defense. You can pop back over to the previous piece for more details on the method, but basically, we're looking at scoring defense with the opponents' non-offensive touchdowns factored out and then controlling for pace of play.
So how does the 2015 defense stack up? Here are the top five scoring defenses in the last seven years:
1. 2015 (19.4 PPG)
2. 2009 (21.7 PPG)
3. 2014 (23.4 PPG)
4. 2011 (23.9 PPG)
5. 2010 (25.4 PPG)
You can tell things have been bad lately when a 2010 unit that was gashed by Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Oregon, Florida, and even UAB finishes among the top five. But hey, they were better than 2012 and 2013.
But the biggest surprise is that the 2015 defense comes out the clear winner. This is a defense that, after giving up 30 points to Bowling Green, blowing leads against Florida and Oklahoma, and getting manhandled by Arkansas, looked like they had taken a serious step back from the 2014 defense, which was itself notably worse than Monte Kiffin's 2009 unit. Yet somehow they finished well clear of a 2009 defense that gave up less than 14 points to Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina and held a Tim Tebow-led Florida to their second-lowest point total of the regular season.
The difference is that, while the 2009 team allowed 35+ points twice in their last four contests--in the Dexter McCluster Game and the Chick-fil-A Bowl--the 2015 team allowed just 12 points per game in their last three and never let an opposing offense break the 30-point barrier in regulation. Of course, it helps when your last three games are against three of the five worst scoring offenses in FBS football. This doesn't account for strength of schedule, and the quality of the offenses in the East might account for the 2015 defense's high marks.
And there is still ammunition for those who argue the 2015 defense struggled more than they should have. Their 5.33 yards-per-play allowed was worse than the 5.31 allowed last season, for all that the scoring defense was improved. But, while the 2015 team might not have excelled between the 20s, they took a significant step forward in the skill that was the 2014 team's biggest weakness: keeping opponents out of the end zone. Fans are still waiting for the Tennessee defense to fully cash in on the promise of the youthful 2014 unit, but it's undeniable that this year's team made strides in the red zone.