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Butch Jones, Tennessee, and Point Differential

 

As the head coach might say, Saturday is a critical day for the Tennessee program. The good news, from the head coach’s perspective:  Butch Jones’ teams have dominated Kentucky…and only Kentucky.

Since 2013 the Vols are 4-0 against the Wildcats. The results have been much more mixed against the rest of the SEC East:  1-4 against Florida, 2-3 against Georgia, 3-2 against South Carolina, and ties waiting to be broken with Missouri and Vanderbilt. And the distance between the Vols against Kentucky and the Vols against the rest of the division is even more stark when you add point differential to the equation.

Here’s the margin of victory chart against the SEC East in Butch’s five seasons:

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 Total
Florida -14 -1 -1 10 -6 -12
Georgia -3 -3 7 3 -41 -37
Kentucky 13 34 31 13 91
Missouri -28 -8 11 26 1
South Carolina 2 3 3 -3 -6 -1
Vanderbilt -4 7 25 -11 17

Remove Kentucky, and the Vols have played 18 of the other 23 division games within 11 points under Butch Jones. And the margins are razor thin against South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia before this year. It’s never been that close with the Wildcats, including last year when Tennessee led by 27 with seven minutes to play before two Kentucky touchdowns in garbage time brought the margin closer.

If there’s good news for Kentucky here, it’s that the Vols have done it every time with offense. Last year Tennessee put the first 10+ yard per play performance on an opponent of the post-Fulmer era; the Vols have scored 151 points on the Cats in the last three years. Even the 2013 team, one week after struggling so mightily with Vanderbilt, had its best performance of the season against a power five opponent by putting 6.32 yards per play on Kentucky.

Perhaps Kentucky will be the medicine for Tennessee’s anemic offense one more time tomorrow. The more relevant point here for the Vol football conversation is how Tennessee has continued to play close games regardless of opponent, unless that opponent is Kentucky.

The Vols, of course, have already played four such games this year, three of them decided on the final play. In 2016 Tennessee went to the final snap against Appalachian State, Georgia, Texas A&M, and South Carolina. The 2015 Vols, now regarded as the closest thing we’ve seen to a championship-level team under Butch Jones, played six one possession games in a span of eight contests. Plus five more in 2014 and four others in 2013. If the average team plays within one possession 35% of the time, the Vols under Butch Jones are at 43.3%.

It’s interesting now to look back at his tenure at Cincinnati and Central Michigan too, where something that looked like a strength in comparison to Derek Dooley – he knows how to win close games! – now looks more like a red flag by playing in so many of them. In his second year at Central Michigan, Butch Jones and the Chippewas were in nine one possession games.

If the Vols do end up looking for a new coach, and the pendulum continues to swing the way it typically does around here when making a change, Tennessee might look less for someone who wins close games and more for someone aggressive enough to take advantage of every snap, and avoid playing them if at all possible.

The last four years say otherwise, but the first seven weeks of this year and much of Butch’s tenure suggests we’re in for another close game tomorrow. In a critical contest, that would again make the margin of error awfully thin.

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