What is most likely to happen: Tennessee’s defense improves in 2016 because of its eight returning starters, impact newcomers, and decisions by Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton to come back to school for their senior years. And the first time Tennessee’s defense plays really well this fall, we’re likely to hear plenty of praise for Bob Shoop.
We’re all excited to see what Tennessee’s new defensive coordinator can do; what he’s already done with Penn State and Vanderbilt defenses facing talent disadvantages that don’t exist in Knoxville is plenty to get one’s hopes up. But beyond the general improvement this veteran group should make, how will we specifically notice Shoop’s fingerprints on this defense? What areas of improvement remain on the solid foundation John Jancek built?
Big Plays Allowed
The Vols weren’t bad at this in the final analysis last year, finishing 33rd nationally by giving up 50 plays of 20+ yards, a continued improvement under John Jancek after allowing 56 20+ yard plays in 2014 and 65 in 2013 (and, of course, 74 in Sal Sunseri’s 2012 year). But some of last year’s improvement had to do with the anemic offenses the Vols faced after Alabama. Early in the year a thin secondary was torched by Bowling Green, the Gators used a handful of big plays to do most of their damage, and Arkansas got back in the game the same way. Last year the Vols were last in the SEC through the Georgia game in giving up 17 plays of 30+ yards.
The good news: Bob Shoop’s defenses have never given up more than 50 20+ yard plays in a season:
|Team||20+ yard plays||National Rank|
|2014 Penn State||38||4|
|2015 Penn State||47||19|
The year before Shoop arrived at Vandy, the Commodores gave up 60 20+ yard plays. This would be a welcome improvement and the one that makes the biggest difference in big games.
End of Game Drives
John Jancek's defenses only gave up a couple of huge plays late in the fourth quarter in his three years - Florida's 4th-and-14 got them the win, South Carolina's 70 yard touchdown run in 2014 was erased in overtime - but they had a tendency to come off as a bad mustang joke in giving up long, late drives. Each of these drives came on the opposition's final possession in regulation (not counting any kneel downs or last year's Florida game, which was more about one big play):
|2013||South Alabama||16||79||End zone interception|
|2013||Georgia||10||75||Touchdown, won in OT|
|2015||Oklahoma||13||60||Touchdown, won in OT|
|2015||Georgia||12||72||Pass into end zone on last play|
|2015||South Carolina||6||63||Fumble in field goal range|
Each of these featured 6+ plays and 60+ yards, resulting in five Tennessee losses and two brushes with what would have been embarrassing losses. Hopefully Team 120 doesn't need too many fourth quarter stands, but if given the opportunity there is certainly room for improvement.
It has to be an all-time weird stat that the Vols were second in the nation in third down conversions allowed last year and 125th in fourth down conversions allowed. Fourth downs themselves are weird by nature and obviously there's a much larger sample size with that the Vol defense was able to do on third down. But it wasn't just that the Vols allowed 18 first downs on 24 attempts on fourth down last year; Tennessee wasn't unlucky with a lot of 4th-and-1's. Instead, the Vols struggled in a number of critical areas on fourth down
|Yards Per Carry||5.46||107|
|Rushing First Downs||7||84|
|Passing First Downs||7||115|
Aside from the first downs surrendered, the Vols also allowed the heartbreaking fourth down touchdowns we all remember. Florida converted fourth downs of 2, 6, 7, 8, and 14 yards to gain. On the year the Vols allowed opposing quarterbacks to go 10 of 11 for 160 yards and two touchdowns on fourth down.
How much of a difference in Tennessee's year could those fourth downs have made? Only a dozen days until we don't have to talk about this part anymore, when it will become Bob Shoop's responsibility to create new, happier memories of what the Vol defense can accomplish in do-or-die downs.