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Phil Steele Unit Rankings Average: Vols In Elite Company

Are the Vols the most balanced team in college football? So few questions across the board leave Tennessee as one of the best teams in the country on paper.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

I got to spend some of my time over the holiday weekend diving into Phil Steele's 2016 preview, which never disappoints. A month ago we compared the 1-14 SEC unit rankings in Athlon and Lindy's, finding when you averaged them all together (quarterbacks, running backs, etc.) Tennessee was decimal points behind LSU as the second best team in the conference by that metric.

How do the Vols measure up across the country? Phil Steele includes Top 50 unit rankings for the entire country for each position group plus special teams. We took all the data and computed his average unit ranking for all of college football. The results were very kind to Tennessee.

This is obviously just one way to rank teams, and perhaps "most balanced" is a better word than "top" in this case. If a unit wasn't ranked in the Top 50, I used 64 (the midpoint of 128 teams) for that particular group. As you'll see, when it comes to the best teams, that only came into play once.

Top 10 Offenses (Average of Phil Steele's Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers & Offensive Line unit rankings)

  1. Clemson
  2. Oklahoma
  3. Florida State
  4. Southern Cal
  5. LSU
  6. Baylor
  7. Alabama
  8. Miami
  9. Tennessee
  10. Ohio State

Even we as fans may not tend to think of Tennessee's offense as being one of the ten best in the nation. The Vols didn't hit many big plays last season, ran the ball far more than they passed it, and developed an identity somewhere between conservative and risk management. But Tennessee shows up here on the strength of an elite backfield and a veteran quarterback, as well as a line full of experience and a receiving corps carrying plenty of recruiting stars (Tennessee's lowest ranking unit according to Phil Steele at 26th). Some of this may still be perception, but Tennessee's offense also has no glaring weakness. Florida State, Southern Cal, LSU, and Alabama are all ranked ahead of the Vols on the strength of their backfield, receivers, and offensive lines while facing far bigger questions at quarterback.

Top 10 Defenses (Average of Phil Steele's Defensive Line, Linebackers & Defensive Backs unit rankings)

  1. Alabama
  2. LSU
  3. Washington
  4. Stanford
  5. Ole Miss
  6. Florida State
  7. Ohio State
  8. TCU
  9. UCLA
  10. Florida & Tennessee (tie)
Having the tenth best defense in the country in this case means you're still just tied for the fourth best defense in the SEC, and Alabama and LSU are miles in front of the field in this metric. Here the Vols are carried by the strength of the fifth rated defensive line in the nation, and are again bolstered by having no glaring weaknesses with so much experience returning.

Top 10 Overall (Average of all Phil Steele unit rankings including Special Teams)
  1. Alabama
  2. Oklahoma
  3. LSU
  4. Tennessee
  5. Florida State
  6. Ohio State
  7. Clemson
  8. Stanford
  9. Miami
  10. Southern Cal
(Note:  Clemson's special teams unit was not ranked in the Top 50, so I assigned them the aforementioned 64 ranking, but ranking them at an even 50 would still make them seventh overall).

A top ten offense, top ten defense, and an elite special teams unit are good enough to make Tennessee a top five team overall in this metric. The Vols only have two top five individual unit rankings (defensive line at fifth, special teams at third), but every single unit is ranked in Phil Steele's Top 26. No other team has every unit ranked in the Top 30. Here again we can see the magnitude of the questions at quarterback at Alabama, LSU, and Florida State, where if you get even above average answers all the other pieces are already championship material.

These are all just numbers on a screen, even if they come from the smartest guy in the room. But they show Tennessee's extraordinary balance and lack of serious concerns coming into the season, and the company those two things can keep. It's more fuel on the fire for the Vols as a serious playoff contender in another loaded SEC race.