When you look at Tennessee’s stat rankings, start at the bottom. In the last few years, there’s always been so much to choose from in how the Vols could improve: 125th in completion percentage allowed. 119th in third down conversions. 105th in throwing touchdowns in the red zone. We could go on.
The 2021 Vols having a glaring weakness in allowing sacks: 117th nationally, giving up 20 in the first six games. One silver lining: Tennessee’s shallow pocket means the Vols are giving up only four yards per loss, so a sack puts you in 2nd-and-14 instead of 2nd-and-20. But clearly, there’s much to improve here. For what it’s worth, Missouri and South Carolina were both stronger than Ole Miss in this department coming in.
But after sacks allowed? The rest of Tennessee’s areas for greatest improvement in major statistical categories aren’t hanging out in the 100s anymore. Most of them aren’t hanging out beyond the Top 75.
And in addition to all the things Tennessee is doing exceptionally well – playing fast, scoring points, converting third downs, tackles for loss – the Vols are playing winning, Neyland maxim football in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.
One stat we came across last year in trying to explain what was suddenly going wrong with UT’s offense: Tennessee had a -44 turnover margin from 2011-20 in SEC play. The Vols haven’t broken even in turnover margin in league play since 2010, haven’t finished in the black since 2009. Why did it feel like things were always going against us? Because in one of football’s most telling stats, they were, for a long time.
But this year, through three SEC games? The Vols are +5, with zero giveaways.
That +5 number is sixth nationally in conference play; shout out to Iowa at +11. Since the Pitt game, I’m not sure Hendon Hooker has thrown a ball that even had a chance to be intercepted.
These two stats could be on a collision course: the best way to force turnovers is to hit the quarterback. Tennessee cannot continue to allow Hooker to be hit 3.33 times per game and think they won’t turn it over. Meanwhile, Matt Corral is one of three quarterbacks in college football with 100+ passing attempts and zero interceptions (Hendon Hooker is one of 14 with 100+ and less than two picks).
But overall, the Vols aren’t just winning and aren’t just fun because they’re playing so fast and scoring so many points. Tennessee, so far, is dominating the turnover battle. They are the team making the fewest mistakes, still created in the image of General Neyland while playing a brand of football he’d barely recognize.
And for the first time in a long time, that leads to a small-but-growing feeling that things can indeed go for us, not against us.