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Tennessee’s Offensive Identity in the Home Stretch

The Vol offense has been relatively successful against a difficult schedule, but may need Josh Dobbs’ arm and legs just as much against weaker competition if Alvin Kamara can’t go.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

We’re all aware of the strength of Tennessee’s schedule in these first seven games. But consider the particular challenge the Vol offense has faced in going against these seven defenses:

Opponent Yards Per Play Allowed National Rank Vols YPP vs
Appalachian State 5.31 46th 4.43
Virginia Tech 4.21 7th 5.08
Ohio 5.31 46th 5.86
Florida 4.13 2nd 6.30
Georgia 5.50 61st 5.58
Texas A&M 5.30 45th 6.91
Alabama 4.25 8th 2.59

The Vols have faced three of the nation’s ten best defenses and six of the Top 50 in seven games. And they performed relatively well against all of them other than Appalachian State in the opener and Alabama last week with two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman having to play on the offensive line.

On the one hand it’s about to get much easier: the four remaining FBS defenses on the schedule are currently ranked 48th, 80th, 56th, and 69th in yards per play allowed. Even teams we tend to think of as strong defensively like Vanderbilt aren’t as good statistically as six of the seven teams the Vols have faced so far.

On the other hand injuries continue to be the word of the week. On the offensive line we only know Dylan Wiesman suffered a concussion at Texas A&M and Jack Jones tore ligaments in his thumb against Alabama but stayed in the game, in part because the Vols were already so devastated up front by injuries. The status of Brett Kendrick, Jashon Robertson, and Chance Hall is unknown, though none are believed to be long-term injury situations.

And now there’s Alvin Kamara, who is dealing with some kind of knee injury. Butch Jones called his situation "wait and see" in his press conference today; John Brice at 247 has the most detailed story here and mentions 2-4 weeks but possibly longer.

Kamara’s absence not only diminishes Tennessee’s explosiveness, but could fundamentally change the passing game. We’ve been pointing out all year how the Vols throw to their running backs more than any other team in the SEC: Kamara is Dobbs’ second favorite target this season behind Josh Malone, with the ball going his way 15.3% of the time. It will be interesting to see if some of those looks automatically shift to Jalen Hurd (7.4% of targets to this point) or even John Kelly going forward.

It will also be interesting to see if and how Tennessee adapts its offensive gameplan in these final five games. I think the Vols can do whatever they please to Tennessee Tech, but will some of 2015’s late-season DNA return against the rest of the SEC East?

The Vols are already landing more big plays in the passing game (24 20+ yard pass plays in seven games in 2016 compared to 36 in 13 games in 2015). If the offensive line is at all healthy down the stretch, I don’t think Tennessee will go away from something that’s been working so well for them, though it’ll be interesting to see how Kamara’s absence factors in here.

Continuing to throw downfield would already distinguish what the Vols do against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt from what they did against them last season. But the most telling sign will be how often Tennessee runs Josh Dobbs.

Last year Dobbs averaged 14.2 carries against Tennessee’s first six FBS opponents (Bowling Green through Alabama) but only nine carries in the final five regular season games. The prevailing thought was Tennessee believed they could win games against teams with struggling offenses without putting their quarterback in harm’s way so often. And they were right, give or take a last minute fumble by South Carolina.

Three of those four anemic offenses are back: South Carolina and Vanderbilt are 120th and 127th in yards per play, Kentucky is 77th. Missouri can be feisty, currently 29th in that category bolstered by 140 total points against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State. But against power five teams they rank only 67th in yards per play. Keep an eye on them.

The most telling predictor of Tennessee’s success remains Dobbs’ legs. Since he became the full-time starter against South Carolina in 2014, Tennessee is 12-2 against power five teams when he runs for 35+ yards, 1-5 when he does not. Take away sack yardage and it’s Dobbs, not Kamara, who has been Tennessee’s most successful runner this season: 439 yards and five touchdowns, six yards per carry. Each of those numbers is better than Hurd’s or Kamara’s.

In an ideal world the Vols will roll into Atlanta with Kamara, Kirkland, Sutton, and a fully armed and operational offensive line. Between now and then though, Tennessee may have to continue to rely on its quarterback’s arm and legs and find a way to replace Kamara’s role in the passing game to make it to the Georgia Dome at all.