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How much can Jim Chaney improve the Tennessee offense in year one? Here’s what the numbers tell us

Will he be able to make chicken salad out of one of the nation’s worst offenses?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Media Day Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

While the Tennessee Volunteers showed plenty of promise on defense in 2018, the offense was a different story.

There were plenty of reasons why the Vols finished the 2018 season as one of the nation’s worst offenses. Injuries, inefficiency, lack of talent, mistakes, miscommunications - you name it - this team faced all factors and could not overcome most of them.

Head coach Jeremy Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton did not have much chemistry, either. Helton’s offense routinely clashed with Pruitt’s ideologies and the end result was Helton leaving for the head coaching job at Western Kentucky.

Now, I’m not sayin Pruitt drove Helton away, but one would have to think that if there was room for growth at Tennessee, Helton would have stayed.

Regardless, what Helton left behind was an offense that finished as the 84th overall team in the nation in terms of OFEI, according to Football Outsiders.

Before we get into this, I want to make sure everyone reading this is on the same page. If you aren’t familiar with Football Outsiders or how their metrics work, click here and the subsequent page will explain everything. FO does a great job of collecting cumulative data, measuring it with context, and then gauging it against factors such as strength of opponent, game situation, etc. to form a metric that goes beyond simple stats such as total yards, turnover margin, etc.

The Vols finished 2018 as one of the least valued offenses, evidenced by their rank of 107 out of 130 teams in the country, according to FO. Their Offensive Efficiency (OE) grade was a measly 1.81, which basically means that the offense didn’t have many drives that scored points, flipped field position, or helped Tennessee gain any significant momentum (or value) from the drive.

Tennessee also didn’t finish better than 101st in any of the other categories outside of the Turnover Rate (OTO), where a 77th finish was the best the team could do. Such categories include first down rate, touchdown rate, ball control rate, and others.

Georgia, on the other hand, finished 2018 as the nation’s third-best overall team in terms of OFEI, fourth-best in terms of OE, and were inside the top-10 of every category except turnover rate, where the Bulldogs finished 11th.

Now, this was Chaney’s third year as Georgia’s OC, so he has had to time to implement his system and his players have had time to grow in said system, which is obviously not the case with UT.

So, in order to get a more realistic idea of how Chaney could impact this offense, I took a look at his first year as OC at every stop (Tennessee, Arkansas, Pittsburgh, Georgia) and compared it to the program’s previous year of offensive output before Chaney’s arrival.

We’ll go in chronological order to keep it simple, starting with Chaney’s first go in Knoxville.

Chaney became OC in 2009 when Lane Kiffin was hired to replace Phillip Fulmer. The Vols were abysmal on offense in 2008 despite having a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate in Arian Foster and all five starters returning on an offensive line that only allowed four sacks in 2007.

Obviously, 2008 was a very bad year in general, but it was especially bad on offense. Tennessee finished at No. 102 in terms of OFEI that year and were in the triple digits in every category outside of ball control (99th) and turnover rate (47th).

In come Kiffin and Chaney. After one year at the helm, Tennessee’s OFEI jumped all the way to 26th and finished inside the top-50 of every category except Value Drive Rate, where the team was 52nd.

Before we move forward, it’s important to keep in mind that Kiffin held his fair share of responsibility for the turnaround, but Chaney was still an important cog in the machine.

After the 2012 season, Chaney was not retained by Butch Jones, so he took his talents to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he coached the Razorbacks’ offense from 2013-2014.

Chaney took over an offense than finished 42nd in terms of OFEI in 2012, but finished with a 3-8 record. The overall OFEI is a bit tricky in this instance, though. Outside of finishing 44th in Value Drive Rate, the Razorbacks never cracked the top-60 in any other category. Playing in the SEC upped the value of the overall offensive output, but in terms of an impactful, playmaking offense, there was much to be desired.

While Arkansas’ OFEI dropped to 88th in Chaney’s first year, the majority of the other categories made steady improvement. The next season, Arkansas’ OFEI jumped all the way to 35th and the other categories followed suit, placing the Razorbacks in the top-40 of each one.

The next stop was the 2015 season at Pitt, where Chaney was basically responsible for putting Nathan Peterman on the map - which is a big enough accomplishment in itself. However, Chaney’s first - and only - year was a bit disappointing overall.

Pittsburgh came into the year fielding a top-15 offense that wasn’t masked by tougher competition. Included in the top-15 ranking was a top-40 team in just about every other category when it comes to advanced metrics.

Under Chaney, the Panthers took a step back. They wound up at 42nd in terms of OFEI and dropped in every other metric, as well. What makes the situation even stranger is the fact that Pitt finished as the 9th-best team in terms of OFEI the next year and improved in just about all of the other categories, too.

Regardless of the drop-off, the end result was an 8-5 season and it was enough to get Chaney hired at Georgia.

Here is where another drop-off occurred, but in an entirely different context. Georgia had just fired Mark Richt and had to rely on true freshman Jacob Eason to play quarterback.

Chaney’s 2016 offense was not good, but he had to install an entirely new offense and had a true freshman running the show. Despite the stacked odds, the Bulldogs fell from 63rd in OFEI in 2015 to 80th in 2016, but improved in every other category.

So what does this mean for Tennessee?

I think all of these numbers reflect upon Chaney’s ability to have success as a playcaller, which is arguably the most important facet of an offensive or defensive coordinator.

The OFEI is a great reflection of offensive output against a certain level of properly-weighted competition, but the value per drive, per play, per first down, etc. is all about what you do in-game, whereas the OFEI is more a reflection of execution.

And as we’ve seen in Chaney’s case, just about all of these numbers improve in his first year. Tennessee’s offense improved as a whole in 2018 - especially when compared to 2017 - but there was a lot left to be desired in terms of playcalling and was one of the big reasons for tension between Pruitt and Helton.

His offenses are efficient, turnover-averse, yet impactful when everyone is on the same page. If he can even get the Vols into the top-60 of these categories, it’d be a major, major improvement from the last two seasons.

Outside of the year in Pittsburgh, which I tend to believe is more of the exception than the rule, there isn’t much to dislike about what Chaney has achieved in his first year over the past decade.

Hopefully the trend will continue in 2019.