A resounding 41-21 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks has the Tennessee Volunteers feeling like the 2019 season has new life. What was once a 1-3 team with no hopes of a bowl game has turned into a 3-5 team that appears to have consistently improved in each of the past four weeks. Their next four games might be the easiest of the season, with UAB, an inconsistent Kentucky team, a Missouri squad in a tailspin, and a 2-5 Vanderbilt on tap.
What happened? It’s a vague question, but it’s pretty appropriate for what we have all witnessed since the end of that Florida game. There was literally no indication that Tennessee football would improve. They had just gotten off to one of the worst starts in program history and entered the bye week after a blowout loss. The Jeremy Pruitt experiment was turning into a massive failure.
There is now genuine hope that Tennessee will make a bowl game. It’s a tight path with little room for error—but it is there. How did we get here?
We took a look at some raw statistics from the first three games against FBS opponents, and then compare them to the next four games. We wanted to figure out where Tennessee improved the most and what might be behind the turnaround in fortunes.
Bolded numbers mark an improved stat. Italicized numbers mark a declining stat.
First 3 FBS Games (Georgia State, BYU, Florida)
Points Scored Per Game: 19.6
Yards Gained Per Game: 353.6
Points Allowed Per Game: 33.6
Yards Allowed Per Game: 377.3
Sacks Recorded/Per Game: 8/2.6
Sacks Allowed/Per Game: 9/3.0
Next 4 FBS Games (Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina)
Points Scored Per Game: 22.0
Yards Gained Per Game: 354.0
Points Allowed Per Game: 27.2
Yards Allowed Per Game: 390.7
Sacks Recorded/Per Game: 12/3.0
Sacks Allowed/Per Game: 7/1.75
That looks about right. While the improvement might seem marginal for many of these stats, factoring the increase in competition makes Tennessee appear quite a bit better. It is much more acceptable to give up 43 to someone like Georgia, rather than 38 to someone like Georgia State.
However, there is one stat above that I believe is far more impressive than all the others: Sacks Allowed Per Game.
If there is one stat which should get you thrilled about the offensive line, it’s how they only allowed 1.75 sacks per game against three of the best defensive lines in the country. Despite facing what might total around 10 NFL draft picks, they held their own and gave their quarterbacks (which totaled three full time and one part time) enough space to make plays happen.
This was a unit which ranked 106th nationally in sack rate just a year ago. They are now up to 69th in the latest numbers. Another exciting part? It seems like they’re getting better with every single game. The Volunteers stunned many observers by not allowing a single sack against South Carolina last Saturday—despite throwing 30 passes and even attempting slow-developing plays downfield.
Obviously the number of sacks allowed can be influenced by more than just the offensive line. Often times quarterbacks can run themselves right into a defender and let a defense register a sack on a well-blocked play. Other plays, the offensive line gives the quarterback more than enough time to attempt a pass, but the quarterback holds on to the ball too long and once again gets thrown to the ground. This was especially evident with Jarrett Guarantano last season.
But right now, that doesn’t seem to be showing up much. Which leads me to believe that this offensive line has finally found a rhythm amid the constant shuffling and rotation. As critical as I’ve been towards Will Friend, I will give him credit here. He’s done a fine job getting his unit to play up to their potential.
Will these trends continue down the stretch? If they do, Tennessee has a very good chance of going bowling. They made it through the hardest part of their schedule and will now face zero currently ranked teams the rest of the way. Even Missouri looks very beatable right now (not exactly sure what’s going on there).
It’s time to see if Pruitt and his staff can deliver down the stretch and deliver a result that many had already abandoned.