Choose Your Own Adventure

So I tried lying to myself all week, about how this game wouldn’t really matter. If Georgia Tech’s unique offense got the best of Tennessee’s Kirkland-less defense, we couldn’t draw too many conclusions. If Tennessee’s offense looked great against an uncelebrated Yellow Jacket defense, we couldn’t get too excited. No matter what happened, our chances in the SEC East race and the season’s narrative would be largely unaffected.

That was a stupid thing to believe.

The Defensive Numbers in Context

There is a helplessness that can set in when playing an offense like Georgia Tech’s. It reminded me a little of our 1990’s games against Nebraska; even with less talent and lower stakes, when that offense is humming a two-possession lead feels like 20. And you can try to talk yourself into whatever you want, but when the ball is kicked in week one the stakes are always high because they are carrying an entire off-season on their shoulders. In Tennessee’s case, an off-season plus some leftovers from 2016.

So it is comforting the day after to realize that while Georgia Tech did run for 535 yards, the most a Tennessee defense has ever allowed, they also did so on 86 carries. Their 6.22 yards per carry are not something we want to try to reproduce, but it’s also not as bad as what Tennessee’s defense surrendered to Texas A&M (7.06), Alabama (8.52), Kentucky (8.05), or Missouri (6.27) last year. GT’s 6.82 yards per play won’t lead us to a successful season if it shows up in the box score every week, but the Vols allowed more than seven yards per play to A&M, Alabama, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt last year. It was by no means success, but I might wait to see what this defense does against the offenses it’ll see the rest of the year before passing judgment on Bob Shoop’s 2017.

Third Down For Less

It was not, of course, comforting in the moment last night. Listening to cries of “STOP THEM!” was like watching your undersized team get dominated on the boards and all you can do is yell “BOX OUT!” Adding to the discomfort:  Tennessee’s offense got off to a not-great start. The first half went like this:  punt, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, an eight-play, 46-yard touchdown drive, and a turnover on downs featuring sub-par clock management. Then a three-and-out to open the second half, at which point Georgia Tech ran the third quarter clock down to 3:14 with a 21-7 lead before missing a 47-yard field goal.

The game got a lot more fun after that. A sure path to no fun:  Tennessee’s opening drives featured 3rd-and-12, 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-10, and 3rd-and-10. But after that, the Vols saw no worse than 3rd-and-7 the rest of the night with one exception:  the 3rd-and-9 dump-off to John Kelly that went for 10, two plays before Marquez Callaway’s 50-yard touchdown.

Quinten Dormady might turn into something really special; right now the Vols just need him to be something good. Last year the Vols could count on a veteran quarterback to get them out of trouble on third down with both his arms and his legs. This year the Vols have to help Dormady get out of trouble on third down by not getting in trouble on first and second down. It certainly made a tremendous difference in the second half last night.

Let Team 121 Be Team 121

I was in the stands last night and didn’t even know there was a trash can on the sideline until I saw it this morning. If the players like it – context clues suggest they do – perhaps Butch Jones and this bunch embrace a bit of them against the world? People making fun of something else the coach does? Bring it on. You don’t like the trash can? Maybe next week there are two of them. If you’re going to do the trash can, own the trash can.

This team will need to rally around each other, and they got plenty of practice last night. Not only has Tennessee lost its biggest names and faces from last season, it will now be without Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jauan Jennings all year. It’s helpful to remember that, while Tennessee’s injury luck has been astoundingly bad, the Vols did beat Florida and Georgia and should have beaten Texas A&M without Kirkland, Cam Sutton, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin last fall. It wasn’t the quality of injuries that did the Vols in last fall; the defense’s shutdown performance against the Gators in the second half came on the shoulders of guys like Colton Jumper. No program is going to handle 2016’s quantity of injuries well. But for now, while losing Kirkland and Jennings in no way will make Tennessee better, there is plenty of talent to meet this new opportunity. Daniel Bituli and Marquez Callaway are Exhibits A and B. We’ll need more, but it was a great opening response.

The drama was similar, but the names and faces last night were new…and the Vols still got it done. It’s a long year with the entirety of conference play before us…but this offense should have earned plenty of confidence in the second half, and the defense will have a chance to do the same against traditional offenses. Team 121 will face plenty of adversity. But if they learned how to handle it better than Team 120, they’ll have a chance to have a more successful season. And in that department, last night was a really good start.


  1. Someone has his Orange colored glasses on while drinking that Orange Kool-Aid

  2. I’m not certain there are any orange colored glasses. I think the sheer magnitude of the time of possession created a real sense of futility while watching the game. I know I was crushed by a sense of impending DOOOOOOM. That’s Georgia Tech football when it is working.

    However, the next day I took a step back and took a deeper look at the stats. Over the course of the whole game, our yards per play and Tech’s yards per play were very close to the same. They had 6.7 ypp and we had 6.5. The difference really was the 1st half. Tech averaged a respectable 5.2 ypp in the first half and they were very consistent about that with plays of 12, 8, and 16 plays. Tennessee did very poorly in the first half averaging only 3.4 ypp. They had 3 and out 3 times. The second half (and OTs) looks different. Tech does some better due to fatigue and gains 7.5 ypp. However, Tennessee kicks it to a whole other level at 9.3 ypp.

    Part of our defensive problem is that our offense took so long to start clicking. Once that happened we were clearly the better team, even with the defensive woes. Tech was gaining yards but they were taking a long time and a lot of plays to do it. Other than 1 really long pass play, they were not a quick strike team. 97 plays is 97 opportunities to screw up by fumbling or throwing an interception or getting penalized and that’s what happened. Their lack of quick strike ability didn’t allow them to get far enough ahead to put the game out of reach and it gave UT lots of opportunities to create a turnover.

    If you live by the slow, grinding style of football… sometimes you die by it too.

    ** footnote: I watched the video of all the offensive UT plays without the GT plays. If you do that, you get a better perspective because you aren’t under the influence of Tech’s soul crushing style of offense.

    • One thing to consider on it taking time for us to establish rhythm: when Jennings went out, Dormady was working without two of the three starters at WR. I wonder how much less familiar he was throwing to some of the backups; he clearly got on the same page with Callaway, but the timing was always a hair off with Byrd, Brandon Johnson, I think Palmer had one ball thrown his way, etc. Plenty of opportunity to correct that going forward.

    • You failed to mention 2 stats

      33 First Downs and 535 rushing yards. Oh and we had all summer and spring to prepare for GT running game.

      • I failed to mention them because they’ve already been mentioned numerous times. My point is that those numbers were gaudy in part because our own offense took so long to get going. Without going 3 and out a bunch of times Tech doesn’t have the ball for 21 minutes in the 1st half and they likely lose a score out of that. Why? Because Tech doesn’t do anything fast. Looking at the drive chart, if UT keeps the ball 3 or 4 more minutes then Tech may only score 7 points in the first half because they don’t have time to get down field and into the end zone.

        Plus, if we score on the 1st two possessions then Tech is playing catch up and the game is completely different. We didn’t though and our defense kinda paid the price. Still, they didn’t give up and they got the turn overs and the plays when they had to have them.

Leave a Comment