I’m a couple days late on this, but Michael Bird wrote an interesting piece at the mothership on why he considers Georgia the favorite in the SEC East this year. It’s an unpopular opinion, but far from an unreasonable one. Earlier this month Joel made the case for Georgia, not Florida, being Tennessee’s most critical game, based largely around the scheduling arguments Michael makes as well in the third point of his story. (As this is a Tennessee blog, I’m required to point out that saying Georgia might have been better than Tennessee in 2004 and that 2007 was "basically the same story" is a little forgetful of the way the Vols blew Georgia’s doors off that year.)
It’s the first two points in his story I find most interesting and worth a closer look:
The Georgia Passing Game Should Be Better
Greyson Lambert led Josh Dobbs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD/INT ratio, and quarterback rating last season. But Lambert’s numbers are largely inflated by his performances against 2-11 Louisiana-Monroe, 3-9 South Carolina, and FCS Southern. In those three games Lambert went an impressive 41 of 47 (87.2%) for 617 yards (13.1 YPA) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He only threw five touchdown passes the rest of the year.
It’s no surprise those three games also featured a healthy Nick Chubb. If you look at Lambert’s performances against bowl-eligible teams - which only included Alabama and one play against Tennessee with Chubb - he trailed Dobbs in almost every relevant category:
As we’ve mentioned throughout the off-season, the problem isn’t Tennessee’s passing game in general or Dobbs’ ability to perform in the clutch. It’s a lack of explosive plays in the pass game. But Georgia struggled even more in that department, finishing 2015 with just 11 pass plays of 30+ yards (116th nationally) compared to 16 (77th nationally) for Tennessee.
This is why the most interesting talking point I took from Michael’s story is this: how much better will Lambert (or Jacob Eason) be in Jim Chaney’s hands? And how much can we expect Dobbs to improve while still in Mike DeBord’s hands?
Tennessee Could Have Some of the Same Problems
Michael’s story does a great job spelling out some of DeBord’s greatest misses at Michigan. His greatest successes in Ann Arbor came with the Wolverines’ best defenses in 1997 and 2006. One won a national championship, and the other missed playing for one by three points.
It’s the nature of those teams that could provide a piece of DeBord and Butch Jones’ blueprint for 2016: with the Vols having already been so close to success last season running DeBord’s offense and having made a change at defensive coordinator, which is more likely? That Tennessee finds success this fall thanks to a noticeably improved and explosive downfield passing game? Or that Tennessee can now put a truly elite defense on the field every Saturday, and the offense the Vols are already running is good enough to win as is with their help?
The ‘97 Wolverines scored more than 30 points just three times. But in their first nine games only two teams scored more than eight points on them: 14 for Notre Dame, and 24 for Iowa. Then down the stretch they won at Wisconsin 26-16, beat Ohio State 20-14, and won the Rose Bowl over Washington State 21-16. And it wasn’t the schedule: they beat six Top 15 teams en route to the title.
Michigan was able to ride their defense to greatness those years, but their offense didn’t produce many blowouts. Could we see something similar from Tennessee this fall?
When you don’t have the personality to run away from the opposition, you’ll find yourself in more close games than you bargained for. And close games, as we painfully experienced last year, usually end up defining the narrative of your entire season.
Since SEC expansion in 1992 the Vols have played 107 one possession games, an average of 4.5 per year. Tennessee is 61-45-1 in those games. The years with the fewest one possession games belong to Tennessee’s most and least talented teams, as you’d expect: the 1993 Vols played just a pair of one possession games, and the 1999 Vols only played three. Right away you can see how close games can shift the narrative: the ‘93 Vols lost to Florida and tied Alabama, the ‘99 Vols beat lowly Memphis but lost to Florida and Arkansas. And so two of Tennessee’s most talented teams of the 90’s walked away from the decade with no hardware and far fewer memories. Meanwhile Derek Dooley’s first two teams also played just three one possession games on the other end of the spectrum.
The Tennessee teams we remember most were most excellent in one possession games. The only Vol squads of the last 25 years to run the table in one possession games? 1995, 1997, and 1998, going a combined 13-0. Our BCS Champions were 5-0 in one possession games, four of them against ranked teams. The 2001 Vols were 3-0 in one possession games against ranked teams. Winning close games can also turn a less talented team into a more memorable one: the 2004 Vols were an unbelievable 6-1 in one possession games, the most wins for any UT squad of the last 25 years. Their fellow East champions from 2007 blasted Georgia and got blasted by Florida and Alabama, but also went 4-1 in one possession games.
It’s far from rocket science: the success and failure of a season often comes down to what you did in close games. And the best way to win close games is not to play them.
To be fair, Phillip Fulmer wasn’t really a go-for-the-throat kind of coach either, especially not in comparison to his contemporaries in Gainesville on either side of Ron Zook. But Fulmer still went 20-12-1 in one possession games against ranked teams, a record that instilled confidence in the Vols in the fourth quarter. So far Butch Jones is 2-5 in one possession games against ranked teams at Tennessee. There is still some confidence yet to learn here.
The Vols may very well have a championship-caliber defense; we’ll start finding out tomorrow. We already know they have a championship-caliber running game. If the defense is on par, how much more does the passing game really need to improve? Perhaps the answer is just enough to keep Tennessee out of too many close games. I would agree Georgia is more likely to find explosiveness with Chaney than Tennessee is with DeBord. But can the Vols find enough not to flirt with disaster? And when there’s no other option but a close game, can the Vols find enough to win anyway?