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In Pursuit of the Fast Start: Tennessee's Opening Drive

We don't have to wait very long for a chance to improve.

Last year Jalen Hurd got the Vols off to a fast start in the Taxslayer Bowl
Last year Jalen Hurd got the Vols off to a fast start in the Taxslayer Bowl
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

One of the best indicators of progress for Tennessee's offense will be speed:  how fast can the Vols get back to the line and run the next play?  Last year UT was 36th nationally in pace; Saturday should be interesting because Bowling Green was third.  The faster pace = better results argument found plenty of ground to stand on the last time we saw this team, as the Vols obliterated Iowa with 42 points in the game's first 2.5 quarters.

Of course, when your offense isn't productive playing fast can really put your defense in a bad situation.  Both Tennessee and Bowling Green discovered this last year as well.  Ole Miss ran 78 plays on a tired defense as the Vols simply kept punting it back to them.  And if you think that's bad, Northern Illinois ran 100 plays on Bowling Green in a 51-17 win in the MAC Championship Game.

So both teams will be looking to drive more responsibly this year while maintaining or even increasing their speed.  For Tennessee, you won't have to wait very long to see possible improvement:  last year the Vols were often at their least productive on their first offensive series:

  • Utah State:  3 plays, -3 yards, punt
  • Arkansas State:  3 plays, 6 yards, punt
  • at Oklahoma:  3 plays, -3 yards, punt
  • at Georgia:  9 plays, 43 yards, field goal
  • Florida:  3 plays, 7 yards, punt
  • Chattanooga:  8 plays, 38 yards, touchdown
  • at Ole Miss:  5 plays, 26 yards, punt
  • Alabama:  6 plays, 21 yards, punt
  • at South Carolina:  4 plays, 6 yards, punt
  • Kentucky:  5 plays, 73 yards, touchdown
  • Missouri:  3 plays, 0 yards, punt
  • at Vanderbilt:  4 plays, 35 yards, punt
  • vs Iowa:  9 plays, 80 yards, touchdown
Take out the Chattanooga game and you've got just 17 points on 12 opening drives against FBS foes.  Tennessee wasn't bad in the spectacular, they were just generally bad:  no turnovers but nine punts, including five three-and-outs.

Of course, Tennessee's two opening drive touchdowns against FBS competition came after the switch to Josh Dobbs at quarterback.  The Vols took the top off Kentucky with big plays, but their work against Iowa was probably more enjoyable for the coaching staff:  after a loss of one on a pass to Jalen Hurd on first down, Tennessee ripped off gains of 25, 2, 11, 6, 6, 12, 16, and 3 yards for the score, never facing a third down along the way.

It's probably not fair to make this a direct Mike Bajakian to Mike DeBord comparison; DeBord is working with more talent and experience.  But one of the fastest ways Tennessee can improve in 2015 is by being more productive on its opening drives.  In this way the Vols can set the tone, in both pace and productivity, instead of having the game dictated to them.  And this can also take the pressure off a defense that could specialize in getting to the quarterback, something they'll be even more free to pursue if the Vols are in front.

The fastest teams in college football don't do all of their damage early; plenty of times they exhaust defenses as the game goes on and take advantage later.  But teams that play fast well do make more of an opening statement than the Vols did last year.  In Baylor's 12 FBS games last year the Bears scored 38 points on their opening drives and only went three-and-out thrice.  Oregon only scored 35 points in 14 opening drives last year, but also only went three-and-out thrice.  It's worth noting Bowling Green scored 38 points in 13 opening drives but also went three-and-out four times, threw an interception, and missed a field goal.

It can only be worth seven points on the scoreboard, but getting off to a good start can be worth so much more to the overall tone of the game.  Tennessee has yet to establish themselves as a team that plays fast well or even plays fast, though we hope both are coming soon.  But for a team looking to be one percent better each day, there is plenty of room for improvement on the game's opening drive, and plenty of opportunity to dictate the pace and the game to the opponent instead of reacting and playing from behind.  We'll see if the Vols can start getting off to good starts this week.