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Tennessee on First Down: Missed Opportunities in the Passing Game

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Josh Dobbs has been spectacular on third down, but might find life a little easier if the Vols were stronger in the passing game on first down.

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Earlier this week we looked at Tennessee's passing numbers on third-and-medium and third-and-long and found Josh Dobbs is the best quarterback in the SEC on third down. But having a conference-leading 68 passing attempts on 3rd and 4-9 does make one say, "Hey, maybe fewer third downs next time?" The best way to accomplish that, of course, is to be better on first down.

Last year Tennessee ran the ball 316 times on first down and passed just 114 times, a 73/27 split (situational stats once again coming from CFB Stats). Only Auburn ran the ball more on first down last year in the SEC (77.1%). Despite defenses having a pretty good idea what's coming, the Vols were fourth in the league in yards per carry on first down (5.04).

You would think this would provide even more opportunity to catch a defense off-guard with the passing game on first down. But last year Tennessee was actually worse passing the ball on first down than they were on second and third down. Josh Dobbs went just 61 of 102 (59.8%) for 543 yards (5.3 yards per attempt) on first down in 2015, throwing three of his five interceptions on the year on the first play of a series. Aside from being better than the rest of the league at picking up third downs through the air, Dobbs also averaged 7.2 yards per attempt and completed 62.4% of his passes on second down.

The Vols were one of only three SEC teams to have their season YPA be higher than their first down YPA (along with Vanderbilt and another run-heavy squad from LSU); as you can see they weren't in good company in first down YPA on the year:

TEAM FIRST DOWN YPA
Arkansas 10.7
Ole Miss 9.2
Alabama 9.1
Georgia 8.8
Mississippi State 8.2
Auburn 7.9
Florida 7.8
Texas A&M 7.4
South Carolina 7.4
LSU 7.2
Missouri 6.5
Kentucky 6.4
Tennessee 6.2
Vanderbilt 5.2

If Tennessee wants to rely on Dobbs' heroics less on third down, it in part needs him to come through more on first down. The Vols were by no means thought of as a great passing team last year, but ended up ranked 14th in the nation in S&P+ offense on passing downs (2nd & 8+, 3rd/4th & 5+). It's a nice stat and it's good to know our quarterback can come through in the clutch. But Dobbs, DeBord and the Vols can surely make things a little easier on themselves on 1st and 10.

Is there a connection here to Tennessee's failure to hit the deep ball? First down is a great time to go deep or work in play action, especially for a team that loves to run as much and as well as Tennessee does. But last year those efforts came up largely empty:  Tennessee was again only ahead of Vanderbilt in 25+ yard pass plays on first down. Nine SEC teams had at least 10 such completions; the Vols only had five last year.

Tennessee's ability to run the ball on first down isn't going anywhere, so we can still expect each set of downs to get off to a good start. But there is so much opportunity here for the Vols to take advantage of, and a big chance to ease their own burdens in seeing fewer third-and-mediums or third-and-longs. This is one of the biggest areas of growth for Dobbs and his receivers heading into 2016.