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Butch Jones vs Kirby Smart: Looking Back

Jones and the Vol offense did better than most against Smart’s defenses at Alabama.

NCAA Football: Georgia Spring Game Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After going 1-2 in three incredibly compelling football games against Mark Richt, Butch Jones and the Vols will get their first shot at Kirby Smart in Athens this fall. It’s dangerously placed a week after what we all hope will be a day of liberation against the Gators, the unquestioned most important game of Tennessee’s season. But should the Vols stumble against the Dawgs the following Saturday, they could find themselves right back in second place in the SEC East.

However, unlike the rest of the division, Tennessee is well versed in Kirby Smart. The Vols have seen his defense in each of the last eight years at Alabama. And while Tennessee never got the best of the Tide in that span, what Butch Jones, Mike Bajakian, and Mike DeBord were able to do was better than most.

Here are the offenses with the most success (via yards per play) against Smart’s Alabama defenses in the last three years, a list including all five Tide losses in that span:

Team Yards Per Play
2013 Texas A&M 8.85
2014 Auburn 7.00
2014 Ohio State 6.88
2015 Ole Miss 6.66
2015 Clemson 6.47
2013 Oklahoma 5.80
2013 Auburn 5.78
2013 Tennessee 5.75
2014 West Virginia 5.70
2014 Missouri 5.49
2014 Ole Miss 5.19
2015 Tennessee 4.97
2014 Mississippi State 4.86
2014 Tennessee 4.85

Tennessee’s 2013 performance in Tuscaloosa is a bit misleading. The Vols were suffocated into running just 56 plays and the Tide jumping out to a 35-0 lead at halftime certainly made things a little easier for Josh Dobbs’ debut in the second half. Still, Justin Worley averaged eight yards per attempt before going down to injury and the Vols did have two first half turnovers in Alabama territory.

The big lead and sudden change to Dobbs were also themes in 2014, but the performance was much more authentic. After starting the game 0 for 4 on third down, Dobbs led the Vols to conversions on 11 of their last 15 attempts. After starting down 27-0, Dobbs and the Vols threw real punches at the Tide in an eventual 34-20 loss. Tennessee ran for 182 yards and Dobbs threw for 192 more, and for the first time under Butch Jones we got a sense that tomorrow was here.

Last year Tennessee’s offense managed just 14 points thanks to missed field goals, but the 4.97 yards per play they averaged were the most anyone gained against the Tide other than the team that beat them and the team they beat to win the national championship. Sack yardage decimated Dobbs’ rushing numbers (16 carries, 19 yards), but the Vols were effective on the ground and through the air throughout: three 10+ play drives, plus the four play out-of-nowhere big play drive to take a fourth quarter lead in Tuscaloosa.

Since LSU in 2011 no one has beaten Alabama by playing ugly. It’s been teams making the best of what a great Tide defense gives them, breaking through for an average of 37.4 points in those five losses (give or take a special teams touchdown).

It likely won’t take something that out of the ordinary for the Vols to best a less talented Georgia team in Smart’s first season. The best news for Tennessee here is the Vols have already averaged 33.6 points per game against the Dawgs under Butch Jones, the last two years going against new Bama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. It remains to be seen what Pruitt can do with Bama’s talent, and what Mel Tucker will do with Georgia’s defense under Smart’s direction. But in both cases, despite getting just one win against Georgia and Alabama thus far, the Vol offense has to feel better than most about their chances against two of the most important new hires in the SEC.