From a national perspective the leading question on Tennessee is some form of, “Can they finish?” We know all the one-liners: largest blown lead in Neyland Stadium history, three blown fourth quarter leads, three blown two possession leads, only team to blow two 13+ point leads in the fourth quarter.
There are plenty of intangible questions about those blown leads, ones Tennessee will have to wait until September to answer. But when those questions drift toward the area of conservative play-calling, we can at least try to offer a few data points.
Tennessee certainly seemed to find a home in risk management last season. And there’s no doubt Mike DeBord has a conservative reputation. But when we label the entire Vol offense as conservative and nothing else, we misrepresent what Tennessee was about last season and will have a chance to be about this fall.
We broke down the run/pass ratios for Tennessee’s 2015 season, and found several distinct tiers that help identify what the Vols were and weren’t able to do offensively. In this we counted sacks as passing plays and removed all the garbage time/victory formation snaps (mostly runs, of course). I think this helps shape the conversation on Team 119 and Team 120.
You can’t stop us, so...
- Bowling Green 68.9% run
- Missouri 67.1% run
- Vanderbilt 65.7% run
These three opposing offenses had the full spectrum of success against the Vol defense, from outright panic against Bowling Green to absolutely nothing from Missouri. But in each case, their defenses had no answer for Tennessee’s run game.
Bowling Green and Vanderbilt were Tennessee’s two biggest games in yards per carry, the only two to crack six yards per attempt last season, and ended second and third in yards per play overall. The Vols got only 4.86 per carry at Missouri, but that was easily the best performance against the Tiger defense all season.
You can’t score on us, so...
- Northwestern 60.2% run
- North Texas 57.8% run
Northwestern got six, North Texas got nothing, and in both cases you could tell what kind of day it was going to be for the Vol defense early on. Tennessee didn’t have the same kind of rushing success against Northwestern they found at Missouri, but they both got heavy doses of Jalen Hurd (58 carries for 281 yards combined in those two games). Especially with the #13 Wildcats, if the other team can’t score there’s no need to get too exciting offensively when you can grind them to a pulp.
The Sweet Spot
- Alabama 55.7% run
- Oklahoma 55.2% run
- Georgia 52.2% run
- Kentucky 51.7% run
- South Carolina 51.3% run
- Western Carolina 50.0% run
This group represents Tennessee’s best statistical game of the year (Kentucky), its best offensive performances relative to competition (Alabama & Georgia), a better-than-average day almost negated by turnovers (South Carolina), an FCS blowout, and an oddball against Oklahoma.
The Vols may have seemed pressed to throw down 24-3 against Georgia, but Tennessee had been moving the ball consistently against the Dawgs and got it back within seven points so quickly that argument holds less weight.
Tennessee’s balanced offense hummed for two quarters and a drive against Oklahoma before getting swallowed up the rest of the night, though negative yardage plays on first down were just as responsible if not more so than conservative play-calling with a lead.
But later in the year when facing a defense good enough to make them earn it and an offense capable of doing its own damage, Tennessee’s offense was much more balanced than a simple conservative label gives it credit for. A balanced Tennessee attack lit up Georgia for 207 rushing and 312 passing and averaged more yards per play against Alabama than any team other than Ole Miss and Clemson.
The Florida Gameplan
- Florida 68.5% run
This is, of course, the game that made the biggest impact on Vol Nation last year, and as a result I think it’s still the game that colors our perspective most. When we ask if DeBord and Butch Jones trust Josh Dobbs to throw the ball against a great secondary, this game is Exhibit A. Dobbs went 10 of 17 for 83 yards against the Gators, but thanks to a strong and steady running game it still should have been enough to win.
I’m sure we’ll ask if something like this will be the gameplan against Florida again in September. But seeing what a more balanced attack was able to do against Georgia and Alabama provides evidence and confidence we might see more from Dobbs in the passing game against the Gators this time.
The Failed Experiment
- Arkansas 45.7% run
The next week DeBord and the Vols swung too far too fast to the other end of the spectrum, trying and failing to attack an Arkansas secondary perceived as weaker coming in. Of all of Tennessee’s losses last year, this one felt the least winnable throughout despite another early 14-0 lead. The Vol offense never found a rhythm and was kept off the field for much of the second half with long Arkansas drives.
There’s an argument here that Tennessee might not be able to win if a team takes away the run, but the Vol rushing attack is so multi-dimensional with Hurd, Kamara, and Dobbs it’s difficult to imagine anyone stopping it completely. The struggles we saw in this game didn’t manifest themselves again in 2015.
In conclusion? The Vols’ run/pass ratio was more balanced than we gave it credit for in 2015, and Tennessee’s best offensive performances came in their moments of greatest balance. Saying the Vols need to be less conservative doesn’t simply mean throwing the ball more. Tennessee’s defense certainly carries some weight in these losses last year, and a major change has already taken place there. The Vols don’t need a major change on offense, in philosophy or execution. If Tennessee can fit a few more big plays into an already strong attack, we’ll be identifying the Vol offense with far more exciting terms.