(This is a real list!)
It’s not easy to measure progress when you’ve taken a pair of 26-point losses to teams you talked yourself into beating leading up to game week. It’s only Friday, but I don’t think many of us are talking ourselves into much against Georgia. But it’s also possible – especially after a six-turnover performance – to swing too hard the other way.
It may feel like baby steps, but so far this team does a couple things really well, especially compared to their predecessors.
Third Down Defense
Let’s start with the most straightforward way to understand it: the Vols allow a conversion on 24.5% of opponent attempts (stats from Sports Source Analytics). That’s currently sixth-best in the nation. Last year the Vols allowed conversions on 45.2% of opponent attempts, 113th nationally.
But there’s more. What caught my eye on this stat was Bill Connelly’s advanced statistical profiles, where Tennessee is currently first in the country in defending third-and-medium.
We charted every one of the 49 third downs against the Vol defense this season. Jeremy Pruitt’s troops have allowed a dozen conversions. Five of them were in the second half of the West Virginia game. Tennessee hasn’t been great at stopping third-and-short: teams are 6-of-9 when needing three yards or less on third down. The Vols are 83rd nationally in Connelly’s categorization of thid-and-short.
But once it gets to 3rd-and-4+, it’s been a very different story. The Vols have allowed first downs on just 6-of-40 (15%) attempts of 3rd-and-4+. One of those was in garbage time on the final drive last week.
Tennessee may not be built to handle third-and-short right now, but they’ve done an excellent job so far handling everything else, especially when not facing West Virginia’s offense.
Explosive Plays in the Passing Game
As you’ve probably heard, Tennessee already has more plays of 50+ yards (six) in four games than they had all of last season (four). Five of those have come via the passing game, plus Ty Chandler’s run against UTEP. Only Hawaii, with the benefit of an extra game in week zero, has more 50+ yard passing plays so far this year; the Vols are tied with five other teams for second nationally.
What’s most impressive about that: Tennessee has only attempted 85 passes this year, 115th nationally.
Here are the SEC leaders in adjusted completion percentage on throws 10+ yards downfield: pic.twitter.com/2tvNLuCg2N
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) September 27, 2018
The Vols do indeed run the ball a lot, and I worry about our quarterback getting hit every single time we don’t. But when he gets it off, Guarantano has been pretty good at getting the most out of his attempts. He is currently fourth among SEC quarterbacks and 20th nationally at 9.1 yards per attempt. The bad news: Jake Fromm is third (10.7), and Tua Tagovailoa is first at…12.9? Get out of here with that. (Fulmerized).
These numbers, like many other things for Tennessee, may go south the next few weeks. But in the first four games, we may have also seen enough to suggest some truth here that might show up in November. And they are significant steps of progress from last year, even in the middle of a frustrating start in the win column.