Week two saw Tennessee fans experience all the highs that come with building a commanding 17-0 lead against a highly-touted opponent, only to then experience the crushing lows that come with blowing said lead and losing a heartbreaker in overtime. It's the sort of loss that prompts (premature) calls for the coach's head, and it's the sort of loss that is extremely difficult to analyze objectively. But here at the Trending Report, we have a job to do, and we're going to do it. What's trending up for Tennessee this week? What's trending down? What's holding steady?
- Quality of heartbreak. In three straight years, Tennessee has had a home game that (1) was a virtual tossup on paper (and had the tossup betting line to prove it), (2) felt at the time like it would define the season, and (3) was an expected win by the majority of fans. In three straight years, Tennessee has blown a fourth quarter lead and lost in gut-wrenching fashion. So what's changed? In 2013, the big heartbreak was against Vanderbilt. And in case "it's Vanderbilt" isn't good enough for you, I can remind you that that Vandy team finished 68th in Bill Connelly's S&P+ rankings that year. In 2014, it was against a Florida team that was completely inept on offense and finished 29th in S&P+. In 2015, it was against Oklahoma, who was ranked at the time and projected to be a top ten team in the S&P+ rankings. The results are just as heartbreaking in all three cases, but an excruciating loss to Oklahoma is different than an excruciating loss to Vanderbilt. When you get past the emotional response, it's not hard to see that Tennessee is still getting a lot better from year to year.
- The defense (for three quarters). Last year's defense put up some pretty good numbers, especially early in the game before depth became an issue. This year's defense might not look like they've taken the step into the elite, but their numbers were sure staggering for most of the game. After 12 possessions, Oklahoma was averaging 12.75 yards per drive and 0.25 points per drive. To put that in perspective, Wake Forest was dead last in FBS last season with 15.4 yards per drive. No one else was under 20. Oklahoma was #29 in the country with 36.2. Yes, some of that was self-inflicted, but the Tennessee defense allowed very little breathing room for most of the game. With any second-half support at all from the offense, that performance would've been enough to win.
- Jalen Reeves-Mayhem. 21 tackles. Three tackles for loss. One sack. Those are just video game numbers right there.
- Crowd noise. While it didn't ultimately result in a win, Oklahoma's offensive line did jump early at least six times. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was excellent under pressure, but Neyland definitely rattled the Sooners line.
- Defensive discipline. Going into the last drive of the game, Oklahoma had converted seven third downs: two by run, two by pass, three by penalty. And that doesn't include a gift of a pass interference infraction on the game-tying drive that kept the Sooners out of a 3rd and 14 situation. The defense had a great game overall, but it could've been a better one without the unforced errors in key situations.
- Tackling in the backfield. The Vols had little trouble getting to Baker Mayfield, but they had a lot of trouble getting him to the ground. Time and time again, Mayfield escaped from attempted arm tackles that left Vols defenders grasping in vain at his ankles. We don't have an exact count for you, but there were far, far too many instances where a sack would've gone a long way towards icing the game for Tennessee and a defender got his hands on Mayfield only to let the OU quarterback escape. For as well as the defense played, there were so many (uncharacteristic) missed opportunities from the defensive line. If they could've made one more play, they could've won the game even despite a terrible performance on offense.
- Week one overreactions. On the plus side, the secondary doesn't look nearly as bad as it did against Bowling Green. Even completely running out of gas in the fourth quarter, the Vols secondary still held Mayfield to just 4.8 yards per attempt and nabbed two picks. For reference, SMU was worst in the country last year with 4.7 yards per attempt. Tennessee will take that performance every week. On the minus side, an offense that dominated in week one against Bowling Green was abysmal in week two against Oklahoma and is a serious question mark moving forward. Josh Dobbs' 4.0 yards per attempt were even worse than Mayfield's, and the Vols averaged just 3.2 yards per play on offense. Again, for reference, only Wake Forest (3.0) averaged less than 3.8 yards per play last season.
- The defensive line rotation (or lack thereof). Jones claimed in his press conference this week that Tennessee had defensive linemen playing 85+ snaps on Saturday. Oklahoma only ran 86 plays on offense, so this essentially means there were guys never coming out of the game. Jones says this is "unheard of." With a second team that includes veterans Dimarya Mixon and LaTroy Lewis as well as talented freshmen Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie, and Kyle Phillips, there's also no reason for it. The starters on the line should be getting enough rest to be effective in the fourth quarter.
- Big game mentality (or lack thereof). After three years of extreme mental fragility under Derek Dooley, it seemed like Butch Jones' energetic, encouraging style would be just what the doctor ordered for Tennessee. And indeed, many of the mental problems under Dooley (chiefly folding in the face of adversity) have disappeared under Jones. But Jones' teams have a problem of their own: they've struggled mightily playing under pressure. Give them a long-shot (like being a double-digit underdog to South Carolina two years ago or Georgia the last two years, or like being down 14 points with less than two minutes to play in Columbia last year), and they'll surprise you. Give them a talented advantage and lower pressure, and they can run up big scores. But in big games that are expected to be competitive, Jones' Vols have consistently played more like they were afraid to lose than like they wanted to win--especially in second halves. You can point to specific things here (a decision to kick from inside the 1, a conservative second half game plan on offense), but there was also a more general feeling that the Vols were focusing more on not making the big mistake that loses the game than they were on making the play that puts it away.
This is officially a trend, and it's one of the most concerning about Jones' tenure at Tennessee. The most optimistic may say that if Jones finally breaks through in a big game, he'll relieve that pressure and start to coach more confidently in the future. The pessimist argues that a big game mentality is something you have or you don't, and Jones doesn't. Either way, if the Vols are this tight in big games now, something will have to change if they expect to compete for SEC titles in the future. One final note on this subject: every example of Jones' failure in this area has come in front of the home crowd. It may be that he is putting more pressure on himself to get that big win in front of fans with years of nervousness built-in. If this is the case, a road trip to Gainesville in two weeks is the perfect time to gain some confidence without the additional pressure of nervous Neyland. That game just got even bigger, and if there's any time to reverse this trend, it's September 26th against the Gators.
- Finishing drives. Jones pointed out in his press conference yesterday that the loss came down to finishing drives. This problem is not new. Last year, despite an overall good defense, the Vols were among the worst in the country at preventing touchdowns in the red zone. And the offense struggled mightily to score touchdowns of their own. Even when they scored 42 in regulation in Columbia last year, they had four(!) drives that went inside the Gamecocks 30 and finished with no points. Saturday was no different. The Vols had eight scoring opportunities (drives with a first down inside the OU 40) and scored 24 points--3.0 per trip. Oklahoma had five scoring opportunities and scored 6.2 per trip. The difference there is staggering and was enough to overcome Tennessee's healthy field position advantage and +2 regulation turnover margin. A missed field goal, an interception, a sack that took UT out of field goal range, a fumble that took UT out of field goal range, and a field goal from inside the OU 1. All while Oklahoma was scoring four touchdowns in five tries. It's not hard to see why the game ended as it did.
- Dealing with defensive pressure. This has been a problem since Jones took over, and while many in orange assumed that Dobbs solved the problem, Saturday proved pretty definitively that the problem is still there. The Sooners were sending pressure, and Tennessee's offensive line couldn't handle it. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord tried to respond by calling screen passes (and more screen passes, and more screen passes), but to no avail. Dobbs finished 13/31 for just 125 yards, was sacked three times, and threw an interception. The line was a known problem, but between Dobbs' ability to escape pressure and Tennessee's laundry list of talented receivers, the Vols should have been able to mitigate it. Without an All-22 feed of the game, it can be hard to tell whether the receivers were failing to get open or whether Dobbs was failing to see them, but whatever the case, this is a problem that should by no means be as bad as it is. Tennessee simply needs more out of Dobbs, Pig Howard, Marquez North, Von Pearson, and the rest of the offensive playmakers. The Vols got just 14 yards on their last five possessions of regulation (not including the knee), and that kind of performance simply will not win games. Butch Jones is an offensive coach, and his year three offense cannot continue to be this bad under pressure.
- Questions at Mike. Middle linebacker was a huge concern going into the season, and it continues to be. After several key mistakes against Bowling Green, walk-on Colton Jumper committed two holding penalties that gave life to a Sooners team that could've been buried. Jumper is the clubhouse leader to succeed Justin Worley as the player you want to love because he's giving his all for Tennessee but that you really don't want to see on the field in key situations. The sooner Darrin Kirkland Jr. is able to wrest the starting job from Jumper, the better.