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How Much Progress Did Tennessee Actually Make in 2019?

If your answer is “a lot”, you’re pretty close to the mark.

Vanderbilt v Tennessee Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

Tennessee’s first win over the Vanderbilt Commodores in three years serves as a fitting conclusion to the 2019 regular season. The Volunteers took one of the most bizarre paths to 7-5 that we’ve ever seen, metaphorically backing themselves away from the ledge they cornered themselves in with losses to Georgia State and BYU. The Tennessee team that played in September is the complete opposite of the one that played in November.

The record and the eye test all point to modest improvement. What do the numbers say? We’ve gone through an assortment of systems and raw numbers to give a comparison of the 2018 and 2019 Tennessee teams. You already know that there was a general improvement—but which parts were the most radical, and which parts may have regressed?

SP+ Ratings

The SP+ ratings system (formerly known as the S&P+ ratings is Bill Connelly’s ratings system, which he formulated himself before being picked up by ESPN. It’s about as good as you can get.

2018: 48th
2019: 31st

2018: 38th
2019: 74th

2018: 72nd
2019: 19th

Special Teams
2018: 30th
2019: 58th

Whatever drop off occurred on the offense was covered up by the defensive rise. As someone who uses SP+ a good amount when doing research, having a meteoric leap like what Tennessee’s defense experienced is impressive. The only similar rise I can remember is Oregon under Jim Leavitt. There’s certainly more out there, but you typically don’t see an offense go from below average to top-20 in one offseason—much less on the back of true freshman talent. That defense will lose very few main contributors in the offseason heading into 2020. It might be enough for Tennessee to have a projected top-15 defense for next season.

Is there cause for concern with the offensive decline? I’d say yes. Mainly because I’m not sure if the late burst we saw on the back half of the season is sustainable. It was obvious that Jim Chaney was trying to install a power run identity that never developed, and he instead opted to air it out with a combo of Jarrett Guarantano and Brian Maurer. That’s encouraging that he adjusted. But if the system is going to rely on a coordinator choosing a play style he isn’t familiar with, it’s fair to ask why they’re getting paid $1,000,000 a year to do so.

Just for fun, here’s the progress the offensive line made. In parentheses is the rank from 2018.

Line Yards: 68 (127)
Standard Down Line Yards: 67 (126)
Passing Down Line Yards: 72 (121)
Opportunity Rate: 80 (119)
Power Success Rate: 64 (123)
Stuff Rate: 77 (130)
Sack Rate: 45 (106)
Standard Downs Sack Rate: 63 (112)
Passing Downs Sack Rate: 39 (55)

Raw Numbers

Here’s a handful of numbers looking at the general trends of the offense and defense.

Points Per Game
2018: 19.5 (119th)
2019: 22.4 (101st)

Passing YPG
2018: 193.9 (97th)
2019: 225.0 (69th)

Rushing YPG
2018: 124.5 (114th)
2019: 140.5 (87th)

Yards Per Play
2018: 5.2 (87th)
2019: 5.6 (60th)

Opp. PPG
2018: 30.2 (81st)
2019: 23.6 (36th)

Opp. Passing YPG
2018: 236.9 (74th)
2019: 201.7 (28th)

Opp. Rushing YPG
2018: 157.9 (57th)
2019: 145.4 (45th)

Opp. YPP
2018: 5.7 (73rd)
2019: 5.0 (29th)

The disparity between the progress in raw stats vs. the regression in advanced stats is noted. We don’t have a particularly compelling explanation besides: Tennessee’s points and yards were buoyed by special teams and defensive plays which made it easier for them to do their job. Another factor would be the competition level and who they performed best against. When you really think about it, most of their best wins this season were not because of exceptional offensive performances.

Defensively, the numbers align much easier. Tennessee’s defense took an enormous leap against the pass and experienced a spike in defensive quality overall.

Dissecting Record

2018 Regular Season: 5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC

Wins: ETSU (N/A), UTEP (130th), Auburn (7th), Charlotte (118th), Kentucky (25th)

2019 Regular Season: 7-5 overall, 5-3 SEC

Wins: Chattanooga (N/A), Mississippi State (49th), South Carolina (48th), UAB (65th), Kentucky (36th), Missouri (35th), Vanderbilt (103rd)

Plus-2 wins is a solid improvement in the second year of a head coach. It was quite the roundabout way of getting there...but the silver lining is the staff might know what changes need to be made in the offseason to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

It also can’t be understated how important a bowl game is. Not just for program perception or fan confidence. Teams receive what translates to around two extra weeks of practice for their games. Those extra two weeks can make a world of difference for certain players, and Tennessee had such a young team in 2019 that extra practices could give them a jumpstart on team cohesion for next year.

The real story here is the conference record. Going above .500 in the conference is the best finish since 2015. There will be naysayers who point out that the five wins didn’t come against any elite opponents, and that they were anywhere from above average to downright bad teams. To that, we say: Sure, and Tennessee hasn’t beaten those teams since 2016. It’s a sign of tangible progress that Tennessee was able to notch five victories against fellow SEC competition. Those types of games have a weighted impact on the recruiting trail as well.