Last month we used the helpful situational stats found at CFB Stats to look at Josh Dobbs' success on third down and Tennessee's struggles in the passing game on first down. Another way they offer a glimpse into what makes the Vols tick is touchdown percentage in the red zone.
In Tennessee's advanced statistical profile at Football Study Hall, the Vols finished 51st (offense) and 50th (defense) last year in finishing drives, measured by points per trip inside the 40. But in the red zone against the best teams on their schedule, Tennessee was much stronger on both offense and defense.
Last year Tennessee played seven teams with winning records, and they were an especially strong seven. Bowling Green, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Northwestern each won 10+ games, and Arkansas was the highest rated 8-5 team in S&P+. This group gives a far better measure of Tennessee's true strengths and weaknesses than debating the merits of what the Vols did well against Kentucky or didn't do well against North Texas.
With red zone numbers, the most important stat is touchdown percentage: how many times did you score or allow a touchdown inside the 20? Against teams with winning records, Tennessee finished 26th nationally in offensive red zone TD percentage by finding the end zone 24 times in 36 attempts (66.6%). And the Vols were 19th nationally in defensive red zone TD percentage against teams with winning records, holding those seven teams to just 14 touchdowns on 28 red zone attempts (50%).
A closer look shows several highlights and could-have-beens from last year inside the numbers:
Offensive Red Zone TD Percentage
For context, Navy led the FBS in red zone touchdown percentage last year at 75.9%; no one bats 1.000. The most memorable missed opportunity here was the 4th-and-goal at the 1 against Oklahoma when the Vols kicked a field goal, but as that didn't stop Tennessee from getting a 17-0 lead it's hard to point too many fingers at that decision in hindsight. The two missed opportunities against Florida are really misleading; the Vols kicked field goals after only getting in the red zone because Dobbs scrambled for eight yards on a pair of 3rd and 10s just outside the 20.
Of all of Tennessee's losses last season, Arkansas has always been the one I was most accepting of. Alabama was no doubt the better team, but I think the Hogs were an even worse match-up for Tennessee. And yet, on three consecutive second quarter drives, the Vols had 2nd and 4 at the Arkansas 10 before missing a field goal, settled for a field goal in the red zone, and Preston Williams caught a first down pass at the Arkansas nine yard line before fumbling. The Vols certainly had their chances here.
Still, the biggest takeaway with these numbers is what the Vols did well. Remove the struggles against Arkansas and the Vols turned 71.8% of their red zone trips into touchdowns against six 10+ win teams. Mike DeBord's offense was in the business of finishing drives with authority. This should be an incredible confidence boost for the offense heading into 2016.
Defensive Red Zone TD Percentage
For context here, Boston College led the FBS in defensive red zone touchdown percentage at 33.3%. The Vol defense got bludgeoned with long drives by Oklahoma, surrendering touchdowns on 14 and 13 play drives in the fourth quarter, plus a nine play drive ending in a field goal in the first half (plus two overtime possessions when you only need five yards to be in the red zone). Florida's three red zone trips came via one long run, one short field, and one 17 play drive.
And yet here again, look at what the Vols did well. The Bowling Green game could have been a lot scarier in hindsight; the Arkansas game could have been much worse. In both cases Tennessee's defense made plays to keep the opposition out of the end zone once they got close. Georgia scored 31 points but made just a single visit to the red zone. And the Vol defense keeping Alabama out of the end zone three different times gave Tennessee a very real chance to beat the eventual national champions.
We all can and will beat the big play drum; Tennessee's defense really stopped allowing them after the Georgia game, but the offense is definitely still looking for more. However, when the Vols got close last year against the best teams on their schedule, they closed the deal in the end zone at an excellent rate. And likewise the defense did a remarkable job of not breaking when not being asked to stay on the field for 13+ plays, something we're hopeful Bob Shoop can help with.
For those who like to find ways to measure how a team performs in the clutch, what they do in the red zone is a telling stat. And here, on both sides of the ball, Tennessee is already performing at a very high level against the best teams on its schedule. This is all the more reason for this team, its coaching staff, and its fan base to believe in Tennessee in 2016.