After a rocky start, the Vols found their footing in a big way, riding a 45-3 run to a 45-24 win over the Virginia Tech Hokies at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night. On the scoreboard, it was a huge statement after needing overtime to squeak past Appalachian State a week before. But the underlying stats show plenty of room for improvement. Where are the Vols getting better, and where are they still struggling? This week's Trending Report is here to sort it out.
- Erasing double-digit deficits. If you're reading here, you probably know that Tennessee jumped out to double-digit leads against their first three major conference opponents in 2015. They lost all three games. In 2016, the Vols have been behind by double digits in both games, and yet they're 2-0. It hasn't always been pretty, but Tennessee has been in a hole twice and has climbed out twice.
- Taking advantage of sloppy competition like it's 2013. In our staff picks, Will compared Virginia Tech to Tennessee back in 2013, when the Vols traveled to Oregon to face a top ten opponent with a brand-new tempo offense and got demolished 59-14. But in the aftermath, this game looked a lot more like the week prior, when the Vols faced off at home against Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky. WKU's first drive saw them march down the field and kick a field goal; UT's saw them gain 12 yards and punt. It looked like Tennessee was in for a long afternoon, until WKU coughed it up an amazing five times on six plays to close the first quarter. The Vols ran the first two interceptions back for touchdowns and turned the last three into another 17 points--a 31-0 run that put Tennessee well on their way to a 52-20 laugher. On Saturday night, Virginia Tech bossed the game for a quarter, taking a 14-0 lead and looking as though they were ready for much, much more. Then they fell apart. Starting on the last play of the first quarter, Tech committed five personal fouls, lost a fumble, and botched a punt. All before halftime. In total, Tech would commit seven personal fouls and lose five fumbles. Tennessee turned that into a 45-3 scoring run that turned a 14-0 deficit into a 45-17 lead. The Vols, for their part, turned eight trips inside the Virginia Tech 40 into 45 points, a stellar 5.6 points per opportunity. For a team that struggled to finish drives last year (averaging 4.4 points per opportunity, good for 69th in the country), that was a major step in the right direction. When a break comes your way, SCORE!
- Explosive plays. Last year, Tennessee ranked 82nd nationally with just 24 plays of 30+ yards (1.8 per game). Saturday, they had three. Against Appalachian State, the Vols had just one run of 15+ or pass of 20+. Against Virginia Tech, they had six. They're a long way from Chip Kelly's Oregon, but just like in finishing drives, this week was a major step in the right direction.
- Letting Dobbs run. Those six explosive plays? Three of them were carries by Josh Dobbs. This offense doesn't go when he's not a threat on the ground. When he is, it can cover up a lot of problems.
- Luck. Virginia Tech fumbled five times. Give Tennessee's defense credit for that. But there were seven fumbles at Bristol Saturday night, and the Vols recovered all seven. While it's happened two weeks in a row--Tennessee's fumble recovery percentage is now 92% on the season--that's not going to happen every week, and if the Vols recover closer to 50% of the balls on the ground, both of their first two contests would've been very different games.
- The mother of all trap games. In the rearview mirror is the Biggest Ever. On the horizon is the biggest of the season. In the middle is Ohio University, fresh off a 37-21 win over Kansas. The Bobcats are four-score underdogs and probably won't win. But they can't ask for a better situation than this.
- The offensive line. We were wondering whether the line play against App State was an aberration. This week gave the "no" crowd some pretty compelling evidence. Dobbs was running for his life all day--that he's an excellent runner was Tennessee's saving grace. And it wasn't because the Hokies were sending in exotic blitzes. They spent most of the evening rushing three players and still getting into the backfield with ease. An offensive line that returned four starters and both coaches (DeBord is listed as quarterbacks coach but has extensive history coaching the line) from a pretty decent 2015 has looked helpless protecting the passer two weeks in a row. This week, it only led to two sacks, but it was a major contributing factor to Tennessee's abysmal 29% passing success rate.
- Efficiency. See: the offensive line. Yes, Tennessee scored 45 points. And yet their success rate on offense (excluding garbage time) was just 39% (29% passing, 46% rushing). Over a whole season, that would be good for about 95th nationally. It is an improvement over last week's, but again, it's reason to believe that the week one struggles can't be chalked up to lack of focus. The defense, on the other hand, allowed Virginia Tech a 44% success rate. Over a season, that's top 40. What's the takeaway? This game came down to big plays and big mistakes. But on a play-to-play basis, Virginia Tech was more consistently successful than Tennessee (keep an eye out tomorrow for a closer look at Tennessee's offense in particular). That makes two straight games where the Vols were held under 40% and their opponents were above the national average of 42%. Teams with a success rate margin of 5-10 percentage points win over 75% of the time. Tennessee has bucked that trend two weeks straight. They won't do it all season.
- The ceiling. Tennessee returned 17 starters from a team that went 9-4 and came within overtime of a playoff participant and five points of the national champion (on the road). They also returned the entire offensive coaching staff and upgraded on defense. There was every reason to believe the Vols were a top ten team, the clear favorite in the East, and a contender for a playoff spot. A blogger at Team Speed Kills even picked UT to win the national title. After two games, the ceiling is looking a lot lower. If the offensive line is outmatched against Appalachian State and Virginia Tech, Tennessee is in for a world of trouble against the elite defensive lines at Florida, Texas A&M, and Alabama. The East is still in play, and should be decided by a two game stretch against Florida and Georgia beginning two weeks from now. The Bulldogs and Gators have had struggles of their own, and a two-game sample is small enough to allow a few plays to take on outsized importance. But Tennessee is not a top ten team with this kind of play in the trenches, and the Vols will not be a playoff contender unless the team we see in October has changed dramatically from the team we've seen so far.