That was. . . instructive. But it was not fun, as the Vols were unable to get anything going on offense in a 24-21 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia Saturday night. What can we learn? To the trends!
- Clarity in defeat. As Will pointed out about the 2014 comeback in Columbia, the big things about the Vols program being on the upswing would've been true whether they won or lost, but the truth was much clearer in victory. This year is the opposite. All of the big things about an underachieving and undisciplined 2016 Tennessee squad would've been true whether the Vols won or lost. But the truth is, sadly, much clearer in defeat than in victory. A series of comeback wins papered over real problems. But after Tennessee's biggest upset loss in four coaches (not an exaggeration), those problems have come out into the daylight where they can be examined and addressed.
- Bright spots from key playmakers. Not much went well for the Vols on Saturday night, but there were three playmakers who really stepped up. Derek Barnett led the way on defense with three sacks, Evan Berry turned the clock back to 2015 with what could've been a game-saving 100-yard kick return for a touchdown, and Jauan Jennings contributed three clutch catches for almost half of Tennessee's yardage in the last ten minutes of the game.
- Choosing your wins wisely. The 2007 Tennessee season was a success by most measures. They finished ranked higher than they started, they won the division despite being picked third in preseason, they won handily against the team who finished #2 in the nation, and they put a scare into the national champion. And yet, with the exception of a four-overtime thriller against a team that they had beaten more than 20 times in a row, the dominant memories from that season were bad. The Vols opened with a two-touchdown loss on the West Coast, and lost to their biggest rivals by a combined score of 100-37. At this point, the 2016 season seems to be the opposite. The Vols are guaranteed to fall short of their goal of 10 regular season wins and are overwhelmingly likely to fall short of a division title that seemingly everyone expected them to win. And yet they have a three-touchdown win in college football's biggest ever, a 38-0 streak-busting run against Florida, and a Hail Mary victory over Georgia in what seemed at the time to be a quality win. The 2016 season has not lived up to expectations and has not provided a whole lot of quality football. And yet it's quite likely that the pieces we remember ten years from now are all the best ones.
- "A good team with some bad stretches." The Vols have certainly been up-and-down this season, but a 45-3 run against Virginia Tech, a 38-0 run against Florida, and almost 700 yards of offense against Texas A&M were enough to convince many Vols fans that Tennessee was a good team who struggled with consistency--and that all the stats saying otherwise were just not telling the whole story. But eight games into the season, Tennessee has three losses and an overall scoring margin of just +1. And that's despite being favored in six of their eight contests and favored by double-digits in four of them. With two-thirds of the season in the books, the second quarter against Virginia Tech, second half against Florida, and ball movement against Texas A&M are looking more and more like the outliers. Good play has been the exception, mediocrity the rule.
- Discipline. After ranking 13th nationally in (fewest) turnovers lost last season, they have fallen a jaw-dropping 110 spots to 123rd in 2016. And after two straight years at #6 nationally in fewest penalty yards per game, the Vols have dropped to 71st in 2016. Both were on display Saturday night, as the Vols committed seven penalties in the first quarter alone on their way to a total of nine penalties for 87 yards--in addition to two interceptions and a fumble that left UT -3 in turnover margin.
- Preparation. In 2015, Tennessee's calling card was preparation. They always came ready to play, jumping out to double-digit leads in 11 of their 13 contests and trailing just once at halftime. As anyone who follows SEC football can tell you, 2016 has been a different story. The Vols dug double-digit first half holes in six of their first seven games and needed four comeback wins to open 5-2. But there have been explanations. Against Appalachian State, they were too caught up in their own hype. Against Florida, the pressure was getting to them. Against Georgia, they had a Florida hangover. Against Texas A&M and Alabama, it was the injuries. But against South Carolina, they had an extra week to prepare, they had an ugly loss and a chance for vengeance to motivate them, and they had most of their injured players back. And they still started slowly and sloppily. At this point, the only explanation left is that Tennessee is consistently unprepared.
- Recruiting. We continue the "things had been calling cards for Butch Jones' Vols that are turning into weaknesses" section of the Trending Report with recruiting. The best data we have now suggests that a team needs more than half their recruits to be blue chip (i.e. four or five-star) recruits in order to have championship talent. And Butch Jones has been getting the Vols very close to that threshold, with blue chip ratios of 50%, 46%, and 45% in his first three full classes. The 2017 class, on the other hand, currently has twenty-five commitments and a paltry 24% blue chip ratio. For reference, that's worse than either of Derek Dooley's full classes. The 2017 class has been a concern for a while, but many recruitniks believed that an SEC championship appearance and a top ten finish would buttress Jones' sales pitch and help pull in a fourth straight top ten class. But now that Tennessee's East hopes are on life support and an unranked finish is more likely than top ten, it's officially time to worry about whether Jones and company are letting Tennessee's talent fall behind their SEC rivals.
- Savvy senior QB > inexperienced freshman QB. Three times this season, Tennessee and senior QB Josh Dobbs has faced opponents sporting true freshman signal-callers. In those three games, Dobbs has completed 44 of 79 passes (56%) for 391 yards (4.94 yards per attempt), four touchdowns, and four interceptions. His freshman opponents have combined to go 49 of 75 (65%) for 550 yards (7.33 yards per attempt), four touchdowns, and two interceptions. Unsurprisingly, the Vols are just 1-2 in those three contests, with the only win coming on a Hail Mary as time expired (in which Jauan Jennings raised Dobbs' three-game YPA from 4.46 to 4.94 with one catch).
- Using injuries to explain Tennessee's struggles. Would the defense be better with Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Kahlil McKenzie healthy? Almost certainly. But after a loss in which the Vols offense put up just 14 points against the worst run defense in the SEC, it's time for a moratorium on writing off Tennessee's 2016 struggles as a product of injuries. Like against Appalachian State, Tennessee played this weekend with ten of their first-choice eleven on offense. And like against Appalachian State, the Vols offense managed less than 300 yards and less than 15 points in regulation. Injuries certainly tell part of the story of the season, but they don't tell it all, and they certainly aren't the reason the Vols lost as double-digit favorites for the first time this decade.
- Giving first-year opposing coaches their signature win. It started in 2000, when Tennessee stumbled in Baton Rouge to give new coach Nick Saban his first SEC win. Since then, the Vols have given Mark Richt (2001), Ron Zook (2002), Urban Meyer (2005), Steve Spurrier (2005), Charlie Weis (2005), Nick Saban (2007), Rick Neuheisel (2008), Gene Chizik (2009), Will Muschamp (2011), Gus Malzahn (2013), Jim McElwain (2015), and Will Muschamp (2016) big wins in their first seasons at new schools. That's. . . quite a list. And while some of those games fell during Tennessee's down years, the Vols were favorites in nine of those thirteen contests. And they were favorites of a touchdown or more in five of them. If it feels like the Vols have suffered a lot of ugly losses at the hands of first-year head coaches, it's because they have.