Jeremy Pruitt arrived in Knoxville with a history of churning out elite defenses across the south. From Florida State, to Georgia, to Alabama, Pruitt finished with three defenses that ranked in the top-10 of the S&P+ ratings system and two others that were top-25. All three of his top-10 defenses were #1 overall. Suffice to say, Pruitt knows what he’s doing on defense.
The results at Tennessee so far have been...mixed. To put it kindly.
Obviously the situation he inherited at Tennessee is radically different from his past stops. In fact, it is indisputable that this Tennessee team has the worst defense he has ever had to coach. At Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama, Pruitt walked in to locker rooms with considerable talent (a portion of which he helped recruit) and generally better developed players. No team that hired him had won less than eight games in the previous season. In fact, none of the teams had won less than eight games since 2010.
No one anticipated the Volunteers to all of the sudden have an elite defense. Heck, most did not even predict them to have a “good” defense. An above average unit was the expectation.
That has not been the case so far. According to S&P+ ratings, Tennessee’s defense ranks 105th in the nation. It’s only slightly better with the FEI ratings that focus on efficiency: Tennessee comes in at 79th overall, the worst in the SEC. Volume stat rankings are not very kind either, as you would guess.
Has Tennessee truly taken a step back? Is Jeremy Pruitt struggling to install his system more than we thought?
Yes and no.
You would be hard pressed to convince anyone that watches Tennessee regularly that the Volunteers defense looks worse than it did in 2017. How could the team that beat Auburn and show signs of growth have a defense ranked in the 100s? The West Virginia, Florida, and Alabama game were blowouts, but at least one of those had more to do with the offense gifting great field position.
One way of explaining it involves the level of offense that Tennessee has faced. Here are the Offensive S&P+ rankings of the first five games against Power-5 competition in 2017 and 2018. Note that the 2017 numbers will use end-of-year rankings while the 2018 numbers will change. Still, it is useful insight.
2017: 61, 108, 14, 88, 23 (#58 average)
2018: 7, 32, 6, 84, 2 (#26 average)
Rough lineup for Pruitt’s first season. He has had to face just one offense outside the top-40, and thankfully for him that was the lone victory on the list. The teams in this section of Tennessee’s schedule last year were much less daunting on offense, yet the Volunteers surrendered over 33 points per game. In some ways, this probably accounts for the gap in perception.
The response to this would be: S&P+ adjusts for opponent strength, so Tennessee’s performances are still disappointing.
While that is certainly a valid point, it is also true that S&P+ cannot fully capture the nuances of program situations. Not only is Tennessee facing off against better offenses—they are transitioning to a brand new scheme while doing so. Your defense is going to be a bit worse in certain areas when that happens.
As a quick side note: Tennessee’s ranking in some specialized categories is more hopeful. The Volunteers have the 51st overall rushing defense and 78th overall passing defense, for example.
It is also impossible to account for things like injuries, suspensions, and other unexpected situations. Think of how Tennessee’s defense was forced into awful positions by their offense, when they had to go out in their own red zone and try to prevent a touchdown just minutes after thinking they would have a rest period. Elite defenses would be able to turn those situations into field goals or less. Tennessee does not have an elite defense and that is not the expectation until probably 2020.
Despite this, there are signs that the Tennessee defense is in good hands. After the Auburn upset, we pointed out the dramatic difference in offensive production after halftime, suggesting that Tennessee’s adjustments changed the game.
Or in the West Virginia contest where Tennessee held the Mountaineers to just 13 first-half points. Which is still their season low.
Or in the Georgia game, when the Volunteers bottled up the Bulldogs’ potent running attack until the fourth quarter. Tennessee simply did not have the needed depth, which is something that the staff is vigorously working to fix on the recruiting trail.
Individual performances can also point towards a competent coaching staff. PFF College has given high marks to cornerbacks Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson throughout the season, as well as linebacker Daniel Bituli. The goal is for the defense as a unit to play that well, but showing signs of development with certain players is a good start.
If it sounds like I am making excuses for a struggling staff, I am not trying to. It is simply the context that is required to understanding why observers are more bullish in 2018 despite supposedly worse results.
The crucial observations will come in the final five games of this season. Tennessee’s remaining opponents include South Carolina, Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. This row of offenses is less dangerous than the ones to start the season.
Here they are by respective Offensive S&P+ ratings: 68, 122, 99, 12, 91.
The only guaranteed win there is Charlotte. But since we are focusing solely on Tennessee’s defensive performances, it is hard not to see why the final stretch to end the season might be the most telling part yet.
No longer does Tennessee have to worry about juggernaut offenses with an overwhelming talent advantage. Aside from Missouri, the rest of their opponents are weak enough to give the Tennessee defense a chance to shine.
Dominating Georgia or Alabama was never the goal for 2018. No matter how much Pruitt improved the defense in one offseason, they were not going to stop the well-oiled machines they were faced up against.
Instead, it is these types of opponents that Tennessee needs good showings against. Charlotte and Vanderbilt should be victories and neither team should be able to move the ball with any sort of success. South Carolina and Kentucky should also struggle putting up points on the board, even if they do emerge with a win.
Everyone loves to focus on ranked matchups or rivalry games as the ultimate barometer for a head coach. While they have their place in the analysis, it is not wise to do so with a first-year head coach at a rebuilding program. In due time, Pruitt will get his guys and try to execute his ideal defense. The focus from here on out should be how he manages the “ugly” games: the contests against similar or inferior opponents. They are not flashy and they are rarely signature victories (though Pruitt already has one against Auburn).
Those are the games that help set your foundation as a team. If the staff treats it as such, we should expect an improved Tennessee defense to end the season.