We almost got to hit the fast forward button last night. Tennessee’s touchdown to open the third quarter wasn’t the grind of its first two, which combined to take nearly 12 minutes off the clock in 21 plays. This one was poetry: nine plays, 75 yards, and almost all of them looked like they caught South Carolina off guard. The result was a 21-9 lead with 10 minutes to play in the third quarter. The Gamecocks, 3-3 on the year, looked wobbly. Pruitt’s Vols looked ready to ascend toward bowl eligibility.
And then, the game Vegas thought we’d see showed up.
South Carolina’s next three drives covered 198 yards in 20 plays. You can do the math there on the per-play average. Tennessee’s next three covered 109 yards in 35 plays. That math isn’t as much fun.
The end result – a three-point win for South Carolina – makes sense when you look at total yards: a 376-to-351 advantage for the Gamecocks smells of a close win. But per play, South Carolina (6.71) was far superior to Tennessee (4.81).
We saw some of Tennessee’s script for victory in creating a turnover and not being loose with the ball themselves. But South Carolina, as they have done all year, made it their business to take away big plays. The Gamecocks are now ninth nationally in 20+ yard plays allowed, sixth in 30+ yard plays allowed. And when Tennessee can’t connect on those downfield shots, you get an offense that looks like the one we saw last night: overly reliant on long drives sustained by a third down conversion percentage that seems, well, unsustainable.
Tennessee has converted 33 first downs on third down passes this year (stats via Sports Source Analytics). That’s 10th nationally among teams playing fewer than nine games so far. Jarrett Guarantano was remarkable, for the most part, on third down again last night, even when it had to look different from the downfield throws. Credit Tyson Helton and Tennessee’s offense staff for drawing up a plan that still worked without them. But the more you have to live on third down, the more it will eventually kill you.
South Carolina, meanwhile, lived much more reasonably: big plays taking advantage of a vulnerable Vol secondary, but also 224 yards on 40 carries, which represented 71.4% of their offensive snaps. It’s been there all year, just covered up by turnovers against Florida, an actual win at Auburn, and the quality of opponent from Georgia and Alabama. But Tennessee’s struggles to stop the run might be the quality that most stands in the way of the Vols and bowl eligibility. The Vols are 99th nationally in yards per carry allowed. In S&P+, the offense earns high marks for what it has been able to do, 35th nationally. But the defense ranks 104th, and it’s been down there for a while.
There are no easy answers, and no quick ones either with most of the snaps on the defensive line set to graduate. The Vols have been trying to overcome it in their own way on offense: methodical drives that create few opportunities for turnovers, peppered with enough risks down the field (and enough talent at wide receiver) to keep ’em honest. But when those risks don’t pay off, as was the case last night, Tennessee needs an otherworldly percentage on third downs to sustain drives.
So the numbers say the right team won last night, which also means credit the Vols for almost winning anyway. Nine penalties certainly didn’t help. But I don’t know if the Vols can be the right team the rest of the way home here, which means they’ll need that familiar formula: win the turnover battle, limit the snaps for the other side, convert a bunch of third downs, make those splash plays count.
The good news: Missouri and Vanderbilt have not been good at all in stopping explosive plays. After what will surely be another ranked win opportunity when Kentucky visits in two weeks, the Tigers and Commodores could end up being the best match-ups the Vol offense has seen on the Power 5 level all year. Tennessee’s 4.24 yards per carry last night were UT’s most against a Power 5 opponent since John Kelly ran wild on the Gators last September.
Tennessee is still making progress, which is great. But right now, even against their secondary rivals in the SEC East, it feels like the Vols have a very specific formula for victory, without many variables. The Vols may not be the right team until Pruitt and his staff bring more talent in. But last night they gave themselves a chance to win anyway. Let’s see if they can do it again.