It was more of the same for the Tennessee defense Saturday night against Vanderbilt, as they yielded over 600 yards for the third consecutive game. But this time, the offense wasn't able to keep pace, and the Vols lost 45-34 to the Commodores in Nashville. As we process Tennessee's third loss to their in-state rival in the last five meetings—after losing just once in the previous 30—where were the biggest problems, and where, if anywhere, were the bright spots? To the trends.
- Job openings re:life championships. Your Trending Report writer is currently in the process of applying to academic jobs, and as such noticed this gem last week—perfect for a coach who was unconcerned about losing the SEC East because his players were already champions of life.
- Clarity in defeat (again). The South Carolina loss shined a spotlight on some glaring flaws that had been papered over in comeback wins over Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Florida, and Georgia. But even after losing to the Gamecocks, the Vols still had a chance to improve their win total over last season and make their most prestigious bowl since the turn of the century. On the surface, it would've looked like progress. But it wouldn't have been. Despite a better record than last season, the Vols were ranked lower than the 2015 team in both the FEI and S&P+ advanced statistical rankings, and while last season's team sported a 9-4 record that was two plays away from 11-2, this year's Vols were closer to 6-5 than 9-2 entering the Vanderbilt contest. Losing is almost always tough to take, and Saturday night was no exception, but in this case, the loss didn't rob Tennessee of true progress so much as shine a light on what was already true about the 2016 season.
- Winning the turnover battle. Last week, the Vols won by 26 in what could've easily been a nailbiter. They owed the deceptively comfortable scoreline almost entirely to a +4 turnover margin. This week, the defense didn't play particularly worse—they did allow Vanderbilt more yards per play than Missouri, but Vanderbilt's 55 yards per possession isn't much different than Missouri's 53—but Tennessee's turnover margin went from +4 to -1. That's how you take a four-score victory and turn it into a game you're in danger of losing.
- Finishing drives. And, once you've already gone from a four-score victory to a game you're in danger of losing, how do you turn that nailbiter into a double-digit defeat? By not finishing drives. Tennessee punted just twice against Vanderbilt—compared to four times against Missouri—so it's not like the loss can be blamed on a sudden inability to move the ball. But Tennessee scored touchdowns on every single red zone trip against Missouri, whereas three second half trips inside the Vanderbilt red zone led to just three points. One may look at a yards-per-play margin that went from +2.4 against Missouri to -0.6 against Vanderbilt and assume that the Vols lost because they weren't able to drive the field as consistently as they had the week before. But that's really not the story. The story is that Tennessee finished those drives against Missouri (often by scoring from outside the red zone, leading to that +2.4 yards-per-play margin) and they didn't against Vanderbilt. The 38-point swing from last Saturday wasn't some new kind of bad from either the offense or the defense. It was a performance that fell pretty much in line with those against Kentucky and Missouri but without winning the turnover battle or the red zone battle.