Loyal readers of Rocky Top Talk may have followed along with another season of our Stat Dive articles. I’ve done these for the past few seasons (under various names), where I take a look at some analytics and what they say about Tennessee’s football team. Eyeball tests can often disagree, so I view it as an attempt to sift through the layers and get a clear view of Tennessee’s team quality.
On the heels of the most successful Tennessee regular season since the early 2000s, I’m doing a retrospective and comparing the numbers from 2021 to 2022. The win column going from 7 to 10 is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve gone back and recorded the rankings, and I’ve compared them to this season and shown the almost uniformly positive trends.
We’re sticking with the standard FEI and FPI systems for today. We are also bringing back the Football Outsiders Line Stats for analysis. These are all staples of the series, and I’ve found them to be very reliable.
Some of the numbers you see here will be predictable. Tennessee’s offense scored a lot of points this year, so their offensive ranking is going to be very high. What a revelation!
But I also think there’s some numbers here which require a deeper look. We were all frustrated with Tennessee’s defensive secondary for instance. But what was the root cause? Were there actually some underdiscussed factors which made them look worse than they really were?
Similarly, the offensive line actually took a step back in certain areas—but they made huge leaps in one particular area, which helped jump start the offensive improvement. All of this and more, below.
Programming note: The numbers on the left side are obviously from 2021, and the numbers on the right side of the arrow are from 2022.
FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)
Overall: 18th —> 4th
Offense: 6th —> 2nd
Defense: 66th —> 37th
Fremeau is giving Tennessee a lot of credit for some of their defensive showings. Most notably, FEI had Tennessee’s defense sliding outside the top 50 after the South Carolina game. Shutting out Vanderbilt vaulted it back inside the top 40. FEI in general seems a bit more reactionary when evaluating results.
It was also one of the first systems to really nail the Tennessee offense. FEI loved the Volunteers’ offense from the beginning, and had them as top 5 before the Pittsburgh game. Tennessee taking the next step in their scoring prowess vindicated the system.
FPI (Football Power Index)
Overall: 26th —> 4th
Offensive Efficiency: 17th —> 3rd
Defensive Efficiency: 44th —> 56th
Special Teams Efficiency: 31st —> 13th
So. What went wrong on defense?
I’m skipping ahead a bit here, but the defensive line holds the key to understanding what happened with the Volunteers defense: They improved against the run. But they got worse against the pass.
It’s easy to forget, but Tennessee’s run defense was legitimately approaching a top 10 level to begin the season. They were shutting down teams that had quality rushing attacks. Florida, Kentucky, LSU, etc. I even wrote an article about what the causes of the change were.
That article also included this bit: “The next few teams Tennessee faces will have more stationary quarterbacks, and they really won’t face another mobile guy until Spencer Rattler at South Carolina. If anything, I think the numbers will improve down the stretch.”
They did not. Tennessee’s pass rush was simply not getting it done up front. The Volunteers kept having to send extra guys to get pressure, which left their secondary susceptible. If you give any quarterback enough time in the pocket, there is bound to be an open man downfield somewhere. It was a nasty little feedback loop that resulted in calamity against South Carolina.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that the secondary was a dam ready to break. Everyone knew about the potential issues of losing both Alontae Taylor and Kenneth George Jr. from last season. But I don’t think it really set in until the Florida game. That’s when Anthony Richardson passed for over 450 yards and looked like an NFL prospect against Tennessee’s secondary.
They just didn’t have the talent in the back end of the defense. Combined with questionable coaching, and the Volunteers only had one complete game on the defensive side of the ball. Oddly enough, it was against Kentucky.
You can see some of what I mentioned above with the run/pass divide. Tennessee’s standard down line yards per carry decreased significantly, but their passing down line yards per carry skyrocketed—because teams were having to sell out and try to stop the deep attack. Teams perceived the Volunteers as a bigger threat through the air than on the ground.
That being said, the running game did not “bottom out” by any means. It was still successful and helped manipulate defenses who had to try and figure out a way to stop Tennessee.
We should also pay attention to the sack rates. It wasn’t hard to improve over 2021’s sack rates, considering they were some of the worst in the nation. But Tennessee’s offensive line did a much better job this season of keeping Hendon Hooker upright. Part of that was also more of a willingness on Hooker’s part to get the ball out. There were also no major injuries on the offensive line this year—which might be more of a factor than anything else.
We analyzed the defensive line a bit in the section above. Here it is stated more plainly. When it comes to shutting down opposing run games, Tennessee is—at minimum—a top 25 unit. The numbers are very clear on that.
The decrease in sack rates is more concerning. A lot of people hoped that defensive end Byron Young could continue to improve and become the star pass rusher that the team needed. Young actually did get better overall— but his pass rush didn’t take the leap that other parts of his game did. That’s a bit disappointing considering the position he plays.
This also probably explains why Tennessee has been aggressive with recruiting twitchier defensive ends. In their 2022 and 2023 recruiting classes, there are about five prospects you could classify as pass rushing specialists. They are on the lighter side and have lankier frames to fill out. They win more with speed than power. Tennessee still has some bigger, edge-setting players, but evidently there is a desire for more explosive skill sets. We saw some of the those guys play this year with James Pearce Jr. and Joshua Josephs.
On one hand, it’s good that those players have progressed enough to see on-field action. On the other hand, it’s also indicating a deficiency in the current starting lineup. We will see how this next offseason shakes out and who becomes a reliable option.