A 4-0 record and a bye week have Tennessee fans looking forward to a mighty relaxing Saturday. The Volunteers lived up to the hype last week against the Florida Gators, coming away with a solid 38-33 victory that sent a message to the broader college football world: Tennessee is the real deal.
We bring up the obvious when we say, ruminating on a win is much better than ruminating on a loss. Now that we’re 1/3rd of the way through the season and have some extra time before the next game, we can look back and discuss what we’ve seen so far. This is a bit of a scattershot article, and we’re not really delving too deep into any one issue. We’ve just got some thoughts, opinions, and observations.
So what’s the problem with the secondary?
Is it coaching? Personnel?
The answer is: Both.
You can choose a myriad of plays from both the Pittsburgh and Florida games as evidence for your position. There’s plays where guys are getting beat one-on-one against not great receivers. There’s plays where no one is within five yards of a guy simply running free. Confusion, lack of talent, scheme misunderstandings, it’s all there.
The numbers on zone vs. man coverage in the Florida game do point one way. According to Bill Connelly’s numbers, Anthony Richardson performed better against the zone looks, going for 161 yards on 11 passes with a 63.6% completion rate. Comparatively, he went for 224 yards on 24 passes against man coverage, albeit with a 50% completion rate. Florida’s success rate and explosive play rate was also higher against zone, but the difference there wasn’t drastic. Any way you slice it, Tennessee knew that man coverage was their best bet.
That was actually the opposite against Pittsburgh. The Panthers quarterbacks had noticeably less production against Tennessee’s zone looks, averaging just 6.6 yards per completion and a 25% success rate. However, it should be noted: There were just seven passes against zone, and Tennessee was also facing off against Pitt’s backup quarterback for half of the game. I’m not sure you can take away too much from that.
As for what my eyeballs tell me? Honestly, I think Tennessee really, really wants to play more man coverage. But they can’t put all their trust into the players they have on roster right now.
Before the season, I thought Tennessee’s safety duo of Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough was solid. I don’t think I’d agree with that now. They simply look too slow in coverage, and there’s so many plays where they run into the picture long after they’re supposed to. That’s a giant problem, because Tennessee also knows their cornerbacks right now aren’t SEC caliber. If you have mediocre cornerbacks and you can’t rely on your safeties...you aren’t going to be stopping any quarterback worth a damn.
The good news is that Tennessee has been very aggressive on the recruiting trail with corners and safeties. They already have two blue chip cornerbacks and one blue chip safety committed. That’s a good start, and I’d also look to the portal this next offseason for an immediate upgrade.
Until then, Tennessee’s coaching staff has to figure something out. If a good quarterback can make tough throws, you’ll live with that all day. But they shouldn’t be doing it this easily.
Should we change our expectations for the rest of the season? What games look harder now? Easier?
The way I see it is this.
Alabama - About the same. Yet, it’s interesting how they haven’t been playing as good as they should. Their secondary was getting lit up by Quinn Ewers for a while, and even the backup had some success. I honestly have them as an easier matchup than Georgia at this point.
Kentucky - Easier. Look, I understand the fear that Will Levis is going to shred the secondary. He did it last year, and that was with Alontae Taylor still on the team. Can this Kentucky team actually block though? Because they’ve struggled keeping Levis upright against the likes of...Northern Illinois and Miami (OH). This might come back to bite me, but Kentucky has absolutely not looked like a Top-10 team to this point in the season.
Georgia - Harder. The Bulldogs have been unbelievable to start the season (except for an oddly rusty game against Kent State of all teams). Stetson Bennett looks better than ever, and the defense is still loaded even after all the NFL draft departures. Not liking this one.
Missouri - Easier. They look bad right now. No other way to put it. They are going to be in a dogfight for a bowl game.
South Carolina - About the same. Spencer Rattler hasn’t come as advertised...but did anyone really think the Gamecocks were going to make a gigantic leap? They’re pretty much the same.
Vanderbilt - About the same. They have improved however!
So not much change. Before the season, I had Tennessee at 8-4 on the year. At this point I would probably move my chip to the 9-3 square.
P.S. Sorry UT-Martin. I don’t think much has affected the outlook of the game against you.
So what would Hendon Hooker actually have to do to win the Heisman trophy?
Terry Lambert broke this one down a few days ago. Hooker has spiked in the Heisman odds, and it’s looking like he has real momentum to start the year. Now, what would it take for him to actually win it?
Well, he already completed one of the requirements. A big rivalry game where he puts together a masterful performance. The game against Florida was the most viewed of the weekend, so Hooker finally got the national attention he deserved. Going forward, the hype will revolve around how many eyeballs are watching Hooker and his team.
Tennessee’s ranking—should they maintain it—will also lead to ranked matchups with the likes of Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky. It is imperative that Hooker has similar performances there that he did against Florida. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but going for 400+ combined yards and multiple touchdowns a game will beef up the resume.
At the end of the day however, no matter how many touchdowns and yards Hooker racks up, the Heisman committee doesn’t like giving the award to players on non-NY6 teams. If Tennessee goes 8-4 or 9-3, I don’t think Hooker has a realistic shot heading into the ceremony. The Volunteers are going to have to get to 10-2 at minimum for Hooker to have a real shot over guys like C.J. Stroud (Ohio State) and Bryce Young (Alabama). Even then, that might not be enough to break the vendetta they have against the Tennessee football program. But it’s worth a try!
Observation: Heupel didn’t go as up tempo as usual against Florida.
I know I’m not the only one who noticed this during the Florida game. Despite Josh Heupel’s reputation as running the most uptempo offense in college football, the Volunteers actually didn’t go as fast against the Gators. Seriously, go back and watch the offensive drives. They still use a fast tempo and catch Florida on their heels, but a pretty significant number of their plays are snapped with less than 20 seconds left on the play clock. They also seemed to slow down a bit once they crossed the 50-yard line. This is interesting for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it’s the exact opposite of how many thought they should attack Florida to try and take advantage of shallow depth.
Secondly, I think this indicates Heupel and his staff have a new level of confidence with Hooker and the offense as a whole. They realize that their players know the system so well, they can take advantage of a defense on almost every play. They loved their matchups heading into the game and they were going to let their players work.
Observation: Tennessee’s pass protection looks better!
Small one here, but notable. Tennessee’s pressure rate allowed in the games against Pittsburgh and Florida is encouraging. They were at just 16.3 percent versus Pittsburgh and 22.2 percent versus Florida. Both of those are good numbers. The running game still needs work, but Tennessee’s offensive line has done a great job of limiting pressure on Hooker. That’s likely one reason he hasn’t thrown an interception in four games.