Could the Vols have success on third down against Auburn?

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The Vols’ impoverishment on the money down in 2020 is well-documented and well-known. But just how bad is the situation, and could the Vols get a little richer this week against Auburn?

First, the bad news:

Some helpful context: The average third-down conversion percentage in 2020 is about 41%. The Vols’ current rate of 27% ranks them as No. 119 in the nation. That’s bad.

But Tennessee’s played some pretty good defenses, right? Um . . .

. . . yes and no? When it comes to defending third down, Missouri and Georgia are better than average, but Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas are all right at the average, and South Carolina is worse. So Tennessee’s dismal 27% third-down conversion percentage was basically compiled against average competition.

Wait, I thought you said there was good news

If you’re looking for something to be hopeful about, here it is: Tennessee’s offense may currently be ranked among the worst in the nation at converting third downs, but Auburn’s defense is currently ranked among the worst in the nation at defending them as well.

Here’s the same table with Auburn added:

So what, right? What’s an extra third down conversion or two really worth? Maybe more than you think.

The average offense in the SEC right now is converting only six third downs per game. Texas A&M — the best team in the SEC at converting third downs and also the second-best in the nation — only converts just over eight per game. With so few per game, third down conversions are at an absolute premium. While converting a third down doesn’t necessarily mean that drive is going to result in a score, the opposite is usually true: every failure to convert one means a lost opportunity for more points. Perhaps you can save the day with a fourth-down attempt and conversion, but that’s a high risk/reward strategy (depending on factors like field position and time remaining), and maybe you can settle for a field goal, but doing so is still a missed opportunity at four more points. Convert the third down, and you don’t have to consider any of that; you just keep going.

Tennessee’s offense is averaging just under four third-down conversions per game. That’s bad, but it’s only two away from average and four away from the best in the nation. If the Vols can just get one or two more against an Auburn defense struggling on third downs, it could make a dramatic difference.

Go Vols.

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