How did weaknesses become strengths so fast?

When this season is over, there will be plenty of time for the big picture of Tennessee Football. “So fast” will still be a perfect description for how this program went from total uncertainty to total jubilation in around 20 months.

But in an even shorter timetable, the Vols took the things they were worst at on both sides of the ball, and made them genuine strengths just one year later. Improvements not small, but significant. And they did so without a significant turnover in the players involved.

These would be remarkable accomplishments even if the Vols weren’t undefeated and ranked third in the nation. But that’s the thing: they’re a big part of why the team is as good as they are right now. Instead of, “If we can just be a little bit better…”, the Vols got good for real in two critical areas.

Pass Protection

Last year Tennessee quarterbacks were sacked on 10.88% of their pass attempts vs FBS competition. It was 123rd nationally, and the worst number of the post-Fulmer era.

2021 Tennessee Sack Rate Allowed vs Power Five

South Carolina620.7%
Ole Miss514.7%

Even in victory, you can see how defenses played feast or famine with Tennessee last season. South Carolina’s brief run in the second half was fueled by getting to Hendon Hooker, and Kentucky got two sacks on Tennessee’s final drive to keep the Vols out of the end zone, leaving the outcome in doubt.

Last year, power five defenses got the quarterback 4+ times in six games.

This year, they’ve yet to do it.

2022 Tennessee Sack Rate Allowed vs Power Five


Now we’re talking.

Overall, the 2022 Vols allow a sack on 4.55% of their passing attempts, 42nd nationally. If it holds all year, that would be Tennessee’s lowest number since the 2012-2013 offensive lines that sent three players to the NFL Draft. One year after the worst performance in pass protection in the post-Fulmer era, the Vols are getting their best performance in pass protection in ten years.

The work Darnell Wright did on Will Anderson was spectacular, erasing an assumption that he would simply get there eventually. And Tennessee’s running backs are noticeably better here too, doing a beautiful job helping Hooker get a clean pocket to turn it loose. Keeping him clean is an enormous part of his Heisman conversation. And Hooker getting 3+ yards per carry continues to be the most reliable stat for Tennessee’s ultimate success, with the Vols now 10-1 in his starts when he hits that number.

A huge shout out to the offensive line and Tennessee’s pass protection. And that’s not the only place the Vols made a huge turnaround.

Red Zone Defense

We continue to revisit the, “How many stops do we need to win?” conversation, with Tennessee’s offense playing so well. One thing that fed into that narrative last season: when teams got into the red zone against the Vols, they scored almost every time. On 50 red zone visits, opponents scored 46 times in 2021. Two of the stops were against South Alabama, one was in garbage time. And one was a huge play, with Tennessee intercepting South Carolina’s trick play in the end zone, swiftly turning what could’ve been a 14-7 game into a 21-0 Vol lead.

And 36 of those 46 scores in the red zone last year were touchdowns, 72% overall. That ranked 119th nationally.

2021 Tennessee Red Zone TDs Allowed vs Power Five

OpponentRed ZoneTDs
South Carolina42
Ole Miss43

After making just four total red zone stops last year, this season the Vols have turned teams away seven times already. And, amazingly, teams are scoring touchdowns in the red zone against the Vols less than 50% of the time.

2022 Tennessee Red Zone TDs Allowed vs Power Five

OpponentRed ZoneTDs

The defense was relentless against Pittsburgh in this department, a crucial factor in an overtime win. And in their three huge SEC contests, the defense turned Florida, LSU, and Alabama away twice each Saturday.

The Vols are one of just 17 teams to allow points in the red zone on less than 75% of an opponent’s trips, and one of just 23 teams to allow touchdowns in the red zone on less than 50%. After allowing a touchdown 72% of the time last season, this year it’s at 46%, 19th nationally.

In short: Tennessee’s pass protection is helping this offense go from great to elite. And with an elite offense, a great red zone defense allows the entire team play at a championship level.

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