Go ahead, get defensive

There are so many stats to choose from to highlight the excellence of Tennessee’s defense on Saturday. But beyond just a single game, this one might speak best right now: at the halfway point of the 2023 campaign, Tennessee’s offense is ranked 18th in SP+.

The defense is ranked 15th.

Last year, the Vols finished second offensively in those ratings and 30th defensively. They were 7th and 47th in 2021. It’s a conversation we had both during and after last year’s 11-2 campaign: how good does a Tennessee defense need to be under Josh Heupel? Like, what’s good enough to win if the offense is going to score so many points?

Six games into this campaign, the questions about the defense have moved from floor to ceiling.

What’s good enough to win is, in fact, this defense when the offense is struggling. This defense, holding Texas A&M to 4.47 yards per play and 13 points.

In the second half, the Aggies went:

  • Three-and-out
  • Three-and-out
  • Three-and-out, with the punt returned for a TD
  • Field goal after having 1st-and-10 at the 11
  • Missed 50-yard field goal after having 1st-and-10 at the 37
  • Interception
  • Interception

In national ratings, the Tennessee defense is:

  • 11th in rushing yards per carry allowed, 2.98
  • 14th in passing yards per attempted allowed, 5.9
  • 10th in yards per play allowed, 4.41
  • One of four teams in the country averaging 4+ sacks per game
  • One of five teams in the country averaging more than 8.5 TFLs per game
  • 23rd in opponent third down conversion percentage, 32.3%
  • 11th in opponent fourth down conversion percentage, 29.4%
  • 13th in opponent TD% in the red zone, allowing just 7 TDs on 17 attempts (41.2%)

How does all of that compare to what we’ve seen in Heupel’s first 2.5 seasons?

Yards Per Carry11th11th36th
Yards Per Pass14th58th60th
Yards Per Play10th48th52nd
Sacks Per Game4th45th43rd
TFL Per Game4th14th7th
3rd Down Conv.23rd32nd101st
4th Down Conv.11th24th76th
Red Zone TD%13th28th119th

And for the, “Ain’t played nobody (with a good offense)!” in the back, I’d submit that so far this year, ain’t nobody played nobody! The margins, they are quite thin.

Tennessee Opponents in SP+ Offense

  • Georgia 8th
  • South Carolina 17th
  • Alabama 19th
  • Missouri 22nd
  • Florida 30th
  • Texas A&M 39th
  • Kentucky 43rd
  • UTSA 58th
  • Vanderbilt 64th
  • Virginia 108th
  • UConn 126th

That’s right: the already-vanquished Gamecocks of South Carolina currently boast the best non-defending-champs offense on Tennessee’s schedule. And they scored two touchdowns via a short field and a busted play.

This brings us to the next big question: will it travel? It was late arriving in Gainesville and missed the gate entirely at South Carolina last season. But it was ready and willing in Baton Rouge.

How much is a Top 15 defense worth in Tuscaloosa?

Go Vols.

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