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Stat Dive: Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt

A weird set of circumstances makes this game hard to predict.

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Carly Mackler/Getty Images

This may or may not be the article you want to read right now. But, like any faithful soldier, I trudge on, dedicated to giving you the good news of hard numbers. This week, it’s the No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers matching up against a surging Vanderbilt Commodores team, the latter of whom is on their first SEC winning streak since...a while ago.

As we saw last week, numbers don’t really mean much when the ball gets kicked off. Yes, I can give you the best guess about what teams will look like. The systems have done a decent job of telling you who will win! But it’s a wild game, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out like the numbers suggest. Like when a horrible offense has a legendary night out of nowhere…

That’s enough pessimism. Let’s check out the stats and see where these two teams match up.

FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)

Tennessee Volunteers

Overall: 5th (Last Week: 4th)
Offense: 1st (Last Week: 2nd)
Defense: 51st (Last Week: 30th)

Tennessee’s offense is...the best in the country now. Huh.

I wouldn’t throw these offensive numbers out the window. But I would add some pretty big asterisks. Hendon Hooker getting injured means the systems will not be able to accurately gauge the offense for this upcoming matchup. We simply don’t have a good idea what it will look like.

If I had to guess, I would say Tennessee will try running the ball much more against Vanderbilt. This might produce mixed results. Vanderbilt hasn’t been good against the run, but their defense as a whole has performed better than usual the past two weeks. Not surprisingly, they’ve also faced two quarterbacks whose passing abilities are questionable. That applies to Milton a good amount—but we’ve also seen him hit some crazy deep balls.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Overall: 72nd
Offense: 68th
Defense: 85th

There’s a bit of a conundrum when analyzing Vanderbilt’s offense. They’ve oscillated between two quarterbacks: AJ Swann and Mike Wright. Both are decent, but it’s Wright who has started in their two recent victories. Swann has been periodically injured.

What’s obvious is that the Commodores like to run it. In their wins over Kentucky and Florida, they only threw the ball 39 times for 292 yards (good for a mediocre 7.4 yards per attempt). They had four touchdowns, but those are not as indicative of a consistent passing offense. So they’re not really trying to test opposing secondaries too much. That could change against Tennessee, and if it does, I would look at Will Sheppard to be the top target. He’s nabbed 54 receptions for 728 yards and an impressive nine touchdowns. He’s not one of those guys who is just the best of a bad group. He’s a legitimately good player who would start on a lot of SEC teams.

So if Vanderbilt is going to try and run it, who is going be toting the rock? Foremost is running back Ray Davis. He is one of the more underrated players in the SEC, and to this point in the season, he’s racked up 982 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. If we assume that Mike Wright starts, we will also see a lot of him on the ground. He was especially effective against Kentucky, when he ran for 126 yards on 11.5 yards per carry. He has 467 total yards and five touchdowns on the ground this year.

This might come back and bite me down the road, but I really don’t think Vanderbilt will try and put the game on Wright’s arm. When he has started against SEC competition, Wright’s numbers go way down and he looks more pedestrian. That’s not the sign of a quarterback simply waiting to burst onto the scene as a prolific passer. I do think he could have a real impact as a runner however.

FPI (Football Power Index)

Tennessee Volunteers

Overall: 6th (Last Week: 5th)
Offensive Efficiency: 3rd (Last Week: 2nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 72nd (Last Week: 42nd)
Special Teams Efficiency: 23rd (Last Week: 23rd)

I will try to restrain myself when analyzing the Tennessee defense.

Simply put, they’re tanking. South Carolina’s bad offense put up 63 points against them. The week prior, they surrendered 24 in the the first three quarters to a similarly struggling Missouri offense. A week before that, they let Georgia have the best deep passing day the Bulldogs have had all season. No one saw Saturday’s collapse coming. But the leaks had started to spring the past three games.

The defense is getting worse because opposing teams are realizing how weak they are in the secondary. This week’s drop in the ratings system is well deserved, and I have a feeling the Vanderbilt game will continue the trend.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Overall: 78th
Offensive Efficiency: 69th
Defensive Efficiency: 100th
Special Teams Efficiency: 22nd

I take that back. In comparison to their defense, Vanderbilt’s offense is much more clear. I really don’t know what to make of the Vanderbilt defense given the results the past couple of weeks.

On one hand, Vanderbilt as a whole does not have a quality defense. This was especially true of their run defense, which started to get bullied as soon as SEC play began. Each of Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky recorded over 5.0 yards per carry against the Commodores. The only team who didn’t was Missouri, who recorded just 2.4 yards per carry. But that one may have been a fluke of sorts, since the weird Missouri offense with Brady Cook at the helm leads to negative plays. The leading rusher for Missouri—Cody Schrader—actually had a decent game of 14 rushes for 84 yards (6.0 yards per carry).

But then, out of nowhere, the Commodores came out and shut down the Florida Gators run game. This was especially bizarre, since Florida had arguably the best running offense of any team listed so far. They ran it 21 times for just 45 yards! That’s 2.1 yards per carry! I’ve watched some cut ups of that game, and from what I can tell, Florida’s offense just had a bad day. Anthony Richardson made some wrong reads, Vanderbilt loaded up the box, and Florida had some downright bad luck.

There’s really not that much of a difference between their pass defense and run defense. I’m very interested in seeing how Tennessee attacks them. If Milton is competent in the read-option game, there will be some gaping holes for the Volunteers to exploit. I could also see Vanderbilt loading up the box and just daring Milton to make deep passes consistently. Those will be open too—but it becomes much more difficult with Hendon Hooker not under center. Overall just a really weird defense to try and gauge.

Football Outsiders Line Stats

Tennessee Volunteers

The offensive line actually held up pretty well. It’s hard to get an accurate look when a team has to constantly pass to keep from getting blown out, but the Volunteers offensive line aced the test regardless. They were the best unit on the team last Saturday. This Vanderbilt defensive line is not great, so barring a mental collapse, Tennessee’s offensive line should continue to perform well. No guarantees about the sack rates if Joe Milton stands in the pocket for six seconds.

Let’s get this out of the way: Tennessee’s defensive line had an abnormally bad game against South Carolina. This came out of nowhere. They’ve had some small weaknesses, but nothing like what we saw Saturday. The defensive ends couldn’t get to Spencer Rattler to save their lives, even with one of the worst passer protection units in the country. It was unfathomable. To make matters worse, South Carolina ran with decent success despite missing their best running back in MarShawn Lloyd. Some of this is clearly the linebacking unit for Tennessee missing Jeremy Banks. But very few linemen won their matchups Saturday. I’m almost willing to throw it away as a freak result because of how unusual it was.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Being 129th in passing down line yards per carry is a pretty good indicator of where Vanderbilt’s strengths lie. Simply put, they’re not comfortable passing for a victory. On the flip side, their run game is actually pretty decent. They have a top-50 standard down line yards per carry and their power success rate is admirable.

Defensively, they are actually much better than I thought they would be. They have fairly average overall grades, but then you get to the power success rate and stuff rate, where they actually grade out very well. That pass rush however…it’s not good.


FEI: Tennessee, 97.2% — Projected Score (52.5-25.6, Tennessee)

FPI: Tennessee, 93.2%

SP+: Tennessee, 93% — Projected Score (42-27, Tennessee)

Remember, the systems cannot account for injuries. Hooker being out would substantially alter the percentage given.

This suggestion is extremely unscientific and I don’t regard it as serious analysis—but if I was trying to adjust the numbers manually, I’d reduce the percentages above by about 20-25%.