Making Progress: Vols in the Red Zone

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What’s the one place where improvement would be most meaningful for Tennessee in 2020? Without question, it’s scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

Last season the Vols made 47 trips inside the 20, but came away with six just 23 times. That’s 48.94%, good for 112th nationally, and of course means the Vols scored a touchdown on less than half of their red zone visits. That’s very bad. Take away Chattanooga and UAB, and the Vols went 17-of-38 (44.7%). That’s even worse.

In 2018, the Vols actually did a pretty good job in the red zone: 34 visits obviously wasn’t ideal, but 22 touchdowns was good for a 64.71% TD percentage, 48th nationally. Larry Scott’s 2017 group went 19-of-35 for 54.29%, painfully flaming out at Florida (0-for-3) after starting the season with eight touchdowns in nine visits, including 5-for-5 must-haves against Georgia Tech. And in 2016, the high-powered Vol offense was one of the best in the nation with 36-of-49 (73.47%), 11th nationally…making it all the more puzzling when they went 2-of-5 against Vanderbilt.

More importantly, here’s what Jim Chaney has done (data from SportSource Analytics):

Jim Chaney in the Red Zone

YearTeamRed ZoneTD%Rank

In the good news department: not only is last season at Tennessee his worst performance, all of his teams got better from year one to year two in his system. Before Tyler Bray’s injury in 2011, the Vols scored touchdowns on 16-of-22 appearances (72.7%) in the first four games, including 5-of-6 against Cincinnati.

It’s always the ones you don’t get that stand out, of course. After a spectacular year in the red zone in 2017, the Dawgs were solid in 2018 but went 1-for-3 in the loss to LSU. And for Tennessee last year, as you’ll see, it’s what could’ve been that stands out.

Again, I don’t think beating Georgia State and/or BYU would’ve changed Tennessee’s postseason destiny last year; I think 9-3 Tennessee is still playing Indiana in the Gator Bowl the way the conference shook out, so maybe you take the lessons instead. But the Vols, of course, settled for a pair of field goals in the middle portion of the Georgia State game. And against BYU (and Mississippi State, and Indiana), Tennessee failed to jump on a team early, missing a pair of chances for a two-possession lead on the Cougars.

One outlier stat: Tennessee threw four interceptions in the red zone last year, most in the nation. But two of those were from Brian Maurer in the Mississippi State game, when he may or may not have had a concussion. A third was a ball Jauan Jennings caught just about every other time in his career in the Florida game. I’m not overly worried about Guarantano throwing picks in the end zone. But we also know he can’t go to #15 and #1 anymore. Jennings was fifth nationally with 118 yards in the red zone last year, his seven touchdowns tied for tenth, and he had eight other catches for a first down, fourth nationally. So figuring out who that guy is for Guarantano is job number one.

Two years ago Tennessee was one of the worst short yardage rushing teams in the nation. Now the Vols should have the horses, up front and in the backfield, to be a terror there. So perhaps an answer to all this is just line up and go right at them, and leave less up to the passing game inside the 20. The Vols don’t necessarily have to be spectacular here; even an average red zone performance last year likely makes the difference in two outcomes. But finding out who Guarantano can look for inside the 20 – and on third down, where Jennings was also one of the nation’s best – could be the biggest key to Tennessee’s red zone success in 2020.

Every 2019 Red Zone series

(via ESPN play-by-play data)

Georgia State – Four appearances, two touchdowns:

  • 1Q GSU 7-0: Touchdown
  • 2Q Tied 14-14: FG as half expires; from 2nd-&-Goal at the 3, Vols went incomplete, interception overturned by pass interference, incomplete, FG
  • Early 4Q GSU 21-20: FG to take the lead; pass complete to Austin Pope for no gain on 3rd-and-2 at the 14
  • Late 4Q GSU 38-23: Touchdown pass with two seconds left

BYU – Four appearances, two touchdowns:

  • 1Q 0-0: Touchdown (Jennings bobbled catch), went for it on 4th-and-3 at the 5
  • 2Q Vols 7-3: Turnover on downs, Eric Gray stopped on 4th-and-1 at the 19
  • Early 4Q Vols 13-10: FG; 1st-and-Goal at the 9 led to run for zero, Guarantano run for 4, incomplete
  • OT1 BYU 23-16: Touchdown, Guarantano to Jennings on 3rd-and-10 at the 13

Chattanooga – Four appearances, three touchdowns:

  • 1Q 0-0: Touchdown
  • 1Q 14-0: Touchdown
  • 2Q 35-0: FG (J.T. Shrout drive)
  • 3Q 38-0: Touchdown (Brian Maurer drive)

Florida – Two appearances, zero touchdowns:

  • 1Q 7-0 FLA: Interception in the end zone (bobbled by Jennings)
  • 3Q 17-0 FLA: FG (Brian Maurer drive)

Georgia – Two appearances, one touchdown:

  • 2Q 10-7 UGA: Touchdown (Maurer to Jennings)
  • Late 4Q 43-14 UGA: Turnover on downs, Guarantano four straight incompletions from the five yard line

Mississippi State – Four appearances, one touchdown:

  • 1Q 0-0: Interception in the end zone (Maurer)
  • 1Q 0-0: Touchdown, Tim Jordan 15-yard run
  • 2Q 7-3 Vols: Interception in the end zone (Maurer)
  • 3Q 10-3 Vols: FG, Guarantano drive, three Tim Jordan runs for eight yards from 1st-and-10 at the 13

Alabama – Four appearances, one touchdown:

  • 1Q 7-0 Bama: Touchdown (Maurer two yard run)
  • 2Q 14-7 Bama: FG (Maurer injured this drive); Vols had 1st-and-Goal at the 5 and went false start, no gain, holding, two incomplete passes
  • 3Q 21-10 Bama: FG; holding on 1st-and-Goal at the 7
  • 4Q 28-13 Bama: COVER YOUR EYES! Fumble returned for TD on Guarantano sneak; Vols had 1st-and-Goal at the 2 but couldn’t get in on three previous runs

South Carolina – Three appearances, one touchdown:

  • 2Q 7-3 USC: Turnover on downs, 3rd-and-Goal at the 1 led to no gain, incomplete. 17 play drive, no points, but ensuing punt was returned for a TD
  • 3Q 21-17 USC: Touchdown, Jennings back-of-end-zone incredible catch, Guarantano hurt
  • Early 4Q 31-21 Vols: FG

UAB – Five appearances, three touchdowns:

  • 1Q 0-0: FG (UAB intercepted on first play, Vols from the 19 went one yard, no gain, incomplete with Shrout playing QB)
  • 1Q 3-0 Vols: Touchdown
  • 2Q 16-0 Vols: Touchdown
  • 2Q 23-0 Vols: Interception in the end zone (Guarantano)
  • 3Q 23-0 Vols: Touchdown

Kentucky – Three appearances, two touchdowns:

  • 2Q 13-0 UK: FG (Maurer)
  • 3Q 13-3 UK: Touchdown (Guarantano)
  • 3Q 13-10 UK: Touchdown (Guarantano)

Missouri – Five appearances, three touchdowns:

  • 1Q 3-0 MIZ: Missed FG
  • 2Q 3-0 MIZ: Touchdown
  • 2Q 10-7 MIZ: Touchdown
  • 2Q 14-10 Vols: FG as half expires
  • 3Q 17-17: Touchdown

Vanderbilt – Two appearances, two touchdowns:

  • 2Q 7-3 Vols: Touchdown
  • Mid 4Q 21-10 Vols: Touchdown

Indiana – Five appearances, two touchdowns:

  • 1Q 0-0: Turnover on downs, incomplete on 4th-and-Goal from the 2
  • 2Q 0-0: FG
  • 2Q 3-0 Vols: FG
  • Late 4Q 22-9 IU: Touchdown
  • Late 4Q 22-16 IU: Touchdown
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