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Music City Bowl: It’s the Defense, Stupid.

Signs of any progress from the Tennessee defense would be welcome in Nashville, even against a depleted Nebraska offense.

Tennessee v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

As fans, we’re sometimes fond of throwing around ridiculous statements like, “I’d rather go 1-11 and beat Alabama than go 11-1 and lose to those (Fulmerzied).” Fair enough. Here’s one I might actually believe in, at least like 49%: I’d feel better about the long-term prognosis of Tennessee Football if we lose to Nebraska 17-16 than if we beat them 52-49.

Tennessee’s Music City Bowl offense will feature Josh Dobbs and Alvin Kamara heavily and for the last time, and we might be including Josh Malone in that group before all is said and done. But the defense, as has been the case for most of the year, is much the same group we’ll see on the field next year. Derek Barnett will get the headlines, and rightfully so, as he chases one more sack to break Reggie White’s school record. Corey Vereen at the other end is the only other front seven starter playing his last game as a Vol. Senior Cam Sutton returned at corner in November but didn’t look 100% and may still not be there. But the majority of this defense will be the same unit we’ll see next fall. And that unit has struggled mightily down the stretch.

So what will make us feel a little bit better about the future isn’t just a win over Nebraska, but more specifically a solid performance from the defense. Or perhaps even a not-struggling-mightily performance.

Tennessee gave up an average of 5.94 yards per play this season, 82nd nationally. Performance dropped off as bodies got thin due to injury and dismissal in one of the biggest stories of the season. The Vols should get safety Todd Kelly Jr. back this week but will still be without three defensive tackles with starting experience and All-SEC linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

Here are Tennessee’s per-game yards per play allowed, along with what each opponent’s offense averaged per play on the season:

Tennessee Defense Yards Per Play Allowed

Team YPP vs UT YPP Season Avg Difference
Team YPP vs UT YPP Season Avg Difference
Appalachian St. 4.42 6.13 -1.71
Virginia Tech 5.48 5.78 -0.3
Ohio 4.18 5.47 -1.29
Florida 5.74 5.14 0.6
Georgia 5.3 5.37 -0.07
Texas A&M 7.05 6.4 0.65
Alabama 7.82 6.62 1.2
South Carolina 4.64 5.05 -0.41
Tennessee Tech 3.03
Kentucky 7.56 6.41 1.15
Missouri 6.73 6.34 0.39
Vanderbilt 8.33 5.32 3.01

The numbers give weight to a number of different narratives we believed in this season. The Vols were strong early in the year after initial adjustments, which came too late to make up the difference statistically (but not on the scoreboard) against the Gators. Injuries were the biggest factor against two of the best offenses the Vols played all year in losses to Texas A&M and Alabama. And defense wasn’t necessarily the culprit even in the costly loss at South Carolina.

I’d still be careful with putting too much weight on a Missouri game when an offense averaging 6.34 yards per play snapped the ball 110 times. But that game does fit neatly into the most recent and ultimately most damaging narrative: the Vols were quite bad, quite often defensively in November.

Adding some historical context, here are the 7.5+ yards per play allowed games for the Vol defense in the post-Fulmer era:

Tennessee Defense 7.5+ Yards Per Play Allowed Post-Fulmer

Game YPP Allowed Result
Game YPP Allowed Result
2013 Oregon 9.04 L 59-14
2012 Florida 8.81 L 37-20
2011 Arkansas 8.75 L 49-7
2012 Georgia 8.75 L 51-44
2014 South Carolina 8.56 W 45-42
2016 Vanderbilt 8.33 L 45-34
2012 Alabama 8.04 L 44-13
2013 Auburn 7.98 L 55-23
2016 Alabama 7.82 L 49-10
2010 Alabama 7.77 L 41-10
2016 Kentucky 7.56 W 49-36

On the one hand, statistically speaking the bottom isn’t quite as low as it was during the Sal Sunseri administration. The 2012 Gators averaged just 5.25 yards per play on the year. On the other hand, most of the names on this list belong to really good teams or at least really strong offenses until we get down to this year’s Kentucky and Vanderbilt squads. (And after I wrote this, Vanderbilt put up a robust 3.88 yards per play against NC State.)

So how much better can we expect Bob Shoop’s troops to be against Nebraska? The Cornhuskers are short-handed with leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp out after a knee injury in practice and quarterback Tommy Armstrong doubtful. Again, we can relate to the injury woes. Tennessee can’t feel like all its defensive problems are solved by shutting down Nebraska’s second team.

But a solid defensive performance can provide hope going into the off-season, while another struggle will cast doubt a 2017 opener against Georgia Tech will offer little relief from. The early portions of 2016 showed some promise for Shoop and company, even in the face of injuries to quality players. When quantity took its toll the Vols struggled and then the bottom fell out against foes of little historical quality. Against a program not lacking in that department from Nebraska, the Vol defense needs a solid outing to set a better tone for Butch Jones and the program going forward. We won’t get all the way back to confidence, but it will be important to see the first steps of progress.