We knew Northwestern wouldn't present a significant challenge offensively; with bowl games complete the Wildcats find themselves 122nd nationally in yards per play at 4.47 this year. The 3.73 yards per play they put up in the Outback Bowl is a point of pride for Tennessee's defense. It's a weird stat for Tennessee, as three of their best performances in that category against power conference teams in the last few years came in losses (2014 Florida, 2011 Kentucky, 2009 UCLA). But in victory, 3.73 yards per play allowed is the best Tennessee has done against a power conference opponent since your choice of Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, or Kentucky in 2008.
But for this Northwestern offense, it was par for the course. The Outback Bowl was just the fifth-worst day at the office for the Wildcats in that metric this season. So, as is the case for the program in general, we should celebrate what Tennessee did against the Wildcats but not use it as the be-all, end-all. It's just the latest data point, and the latest good one.
Looking at Tennessee's scoring defense the past few years, you find 2015 was a clear improvement but there's also little significant competition while the Vols were wandering in the wilderness. Giving up just 20 points per game puts the Vols in a tie for 16th nationally this year.
As talent continues to improve it's hard to argue almost everything about the program didn't improve this season. So how should we evaluate the Vol defense specifically?
Much of UT's identity this season centered around it's tri-headed run game. But by several metrics the Vol defense was actually the more successful unit. Tennessee's advanced statistical profile finds the Vols 42nd nationally in S&P+ offense, but 18th in defense. The Vol offense finished 70th in yards per play, but the defense finished 39th in yards per play allowed.
We have to consider the schedule, of course. The Vols faced a number of elite defenses throughout the year and a number of basement offenses in the final six games. Defensively here's what Tennessee did against each team in yards per play and points allowed, plus that team's average and national rank in those categories:
Again, just a really weird schedule and then bowl opponent for the Vols in terms of playing anemic offenses. A pessimist (or a fan of another team) would point out Tennessee's six game winning streak, which will be exceeded among power conference teams by only the national champion, came against offenses ranking between 95-127 in scoring. Kentucky and South Carolina offered a slightly tougher challenge in general, but the last four offenses the Vol defense has faced have been among the worst in the game. And, other than a couple of drives by Vanderbilt early (and a couple late against the backups), the Vol defense has done exactly what it should have in those cases: shutting out North Texas and allowing a single touchdown to Missouri and Northwestern.
Against these kind of offenses at times it feels easier to give Tennessee a check mark instead of an A+. It's not their fault, you can only play the team in front of you. And the Vols did get specifically better in one of their greatest areas of weakness early in the year: giving up big plays. Tennessee allowed 17 plays of 30+ yards in their first six games, but just six in their final seven. As a result the Vols finished a respectable 39th nationally in that category.
It may be more telling, looking back and looking forward, to judge the 2015 defense most on what it did in the early season. The Vols were healthier in general on the defensive line in the first half of the year, but also still learning how to deal specifically with Curt Maggitt's loss. Tennessee also started the year with Colton Jumper at middle linebacker and Emmanuel Moseley at corner, which eventually gave way to Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Justin Martin.
Still, even in some of the year's most heartbreaking losses the Vol defense held opponents to below what they were used to getting. This was still slightly true against Bowling Green and Arkansas, which felt at the time like our two worst defensive days. It's noticeably true against Alabama, a performance loaded with out-of-nowhere pressure from the Vol defensive line. And it's stunningly true against Oklahoma (a game which featured Maggitt early on), the Sooners' worst offensive performance of the season.
Of course, what stands out the most in that chart is still the thing that stands out most for many with the 2015 Vols: Florida was both significantly better than their average against the Vols and landed the season's biggest play on our defense. However, it's worth noting the Gators averaged 5.6 yards per play with Will Grier and 4.7 without him, so what the Vols allowed in Gainesville was more par for Florida's early season course.
It all adds up to an interesting narrative for the 2015 defense, and one that's hard to summarize or even note a fair trajectory on. They were torched by Bowling Green without several defensive backs, and before we knew Bowling Green was going to become one of the nation's 15 best offenses. The very next week they were better against Oklahoma than anyone else all year. Against Florida they were generally good then heartbreakingly bad on fourth down. Arkansas was a match-up nightmare but the Vols still fared slightly better than average against them. Then Georgia unleashed a number of big plays...but the Vols won.
They got one opportunity to show real improvement, and I thought really did so against Alabama. Then everything else was basically teams they should have dominated...and they did, especially in the last four games. How much does that color the narrative of this season overall?
Tennessee will lose both safeties and starting defensive tackle Owen Williams to graduation. Big decisions loom for Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, with a significant gap between them and their presumptive replacements (as is at times the case when guys are good enough to go pro early). But significant pieces return, and with a number of true freshmen playing critical roles already, you have to be excited about what they can do as sophomores.
John Jancek's troops gave Tennessee a chance to win every Saturday against the best teams the Vols faced and rightly dominated the string of lesser offenses to close the season. As was the case with the offense, it was a year of big plays and missed opportunities. It was definitely progress. Exactly how much so, and exactly where it can go from here? Those are a little harder to answer, in part because we haven't seen them try against a good offense since mid-October. But it's also hard to say why there would be reason for a significant lack of confidence on this side of the ball going forward.
Tennessee has a good defense that's gotten better year-to-year along with the rest of the program under Butch Jones. Can the defense be championship good next year?