In a sentence that would’ve been seen as optimistic before the season, Tennessee football has a chance to wrap up their bowl eligibility this Saturday. The Volunteers stand at 5-5 overall, with their two remaining games being South Alabama and Vanderbilt. It’s been a wild ride to this point, with tons of offensive fireworks and more than a few exhilarating end-of-game situations. I think it’s fair to say that pretty much every Tennessee fan has been satisfied with the results to this point— even if it is not where they want to be as a program.
That being said, the season is not over yet. Even the most jolly of Tennessee fans still have games like 2019 Georgia State in the back of their minds. The Volunteers need to handle business this Saturday and not leave anything up to the final game of the year.
Through 10 games, we’ve tracked how Tennessee’s team has performed in the advanced metrics. We’re almost done and will begin seeing the final tallies for a lot of these numbers. With that in mind, we give you a preview of the South Alabama matchup, and let you know what to expect.
FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)
Overall: 27th (Last Week: 32nd)
Offense: 21st (Last Week: 21st)
Defense: 69th (Last Week: 63rd)
These are the perks of facing the No. 1 defense in the land. Even if you have a relatively bad day by your standards, you don’t get punished for it in the ratings systems! It also helps that Tennessee scored more points against Georgia than any other opponent this season.
Has it settled in yet that Tennessee will almost certainly end up with a top-25 offense this season? In just year one of the Josh Heupel era? After a massive roster turnover?
South Alabama Jaguars
South Alabama’s offense was reliant on quarterback Jake Bentley—yes, that Jake Bentley. He’s thrown for over 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns on a 70% completion rate. Their passing explosiveness is actually somewhat similar to Tennessee’s, on an EPA basis. But Bentley suffered an injury in early November that has sidelined him for their past couple of games.
In his place is Desmond Trotter. Trotter has not found the success that Bentley had, and it’s resulted in some brutal performances the past couple of weeks. The Jaguars were down by 3+ scores at one point in both of their losses to Troy and Appalachian State.
Their receiving game is dominated by one player in particular—Jalen Tolbert. He’s already at 1,140 yards on the season with six touchdowns. He’s a legitimate NFL prospect, and a big key to that passing explosiveness.
Their run game? Not so great. They have a high Stuff Rate and poor explosiveness. Because of this, none of their running backs average more than 4.1 yards-per-carry. If there’s a game for Tennessee’s defense to show up and shut down the run, it’s this one.
FPI (Football Power Index)
Overall: 30th (Last Week: 26th)
Offensive Efficiency: 23rd (Last Week: 22nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 41st (Last Week: 35th)
Special Teams Efficiency: 34th (Last Week: 35th)
I’m a bit surprised at the disconnect between FPI and FEI on Tennessee’s defense. I think most fans would agree that the defense has had a rough couple of weeks, and they’re not surprised to see it drop in the rankings. But ESPN still has this defense tabbed in the top-50. My shot in the dark guess remains the same: the disconnect between down-to-down success and situational success is causing the difference. Tennessee can force an offense into 3rd downs, but it can’t stop them from converting.
South Alabama Jaguars
Offensive Efficiency: 99th
Defensive Efficiency: 78th
Special Teams Efficiency: 99th
South Alabamas defense is viewed as inefficient by most ratings systems, though I want to point out that they do grade well in various metrics. Their defense limits explosive rushing plays, and in general has good success stopping the run on a down-to-down basis. They also have a good Havoc Rate from their front seven.
Their pass defense is the clear weak link however. They allow a decent number of explosive passing plays, and they are forced to rely on turnovers to try and stop offenses. They aren’t terrible—they just aren’t good.
Football Outsiders Line Stats
The good news is that the murderers row of opponents has come to an end for Tennessee’s defense. They had to face back-to-back-to-back top-25 offensive lines in Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia. South Alabama and Vanderbilt are much weaker opponents by comparison. This also gives the defensive line a chance to have a strong close to the season. We’ve already seen some real improvement with the sack rates, which were concerning for a while.
South Alabama Jaguars
I’ve got to give it to the Jaguars here. Their defensive line is the real deal. They do a good job of bottling up opposing run games, and teams tend to fail when attacking up the middle. The downside here for the Jaguars is their pass rush. It’s not very good, and that’s a bad pairing with their aforementioned weaker pass defense.
But that offensive line…oh my. That’s a lot of red. You can understand why their run game is not working. It also makes you appreciate what Bentley was doing.
FPI: Tennessee, 93.8%
SP+: Tennessee, 92% — Projected Score (39-15, Tennessee)
FEI: Tennessee, 86% — Projected Score (38.5-19.7, Tennessee)