One Possession, Two Possessions, Three Possessions, More

It’s game week, and this Vol squad enters the season with a chance to produce the program’s best year since our last division title in 2007. In the 15 years since, that honor currently belongs to the 2015 team. They didn’t have the emotional highs of Bristol, Florida, and a hail mary from the following season. But they also didn’t have the lows that came afterward. That 2015 group beat Georgia and stomped #12 Northwestern, and was highly competitive with some of the best teams in the country.

Since 2001, the 2015 squad is the only Tennessee team to avoid a three-possession (17+ point) loss. They also avoided a two-possession loss. But they went 2-4 in one-possession games, making them the only Vol squad to lose four one-possession games since Bill Battle’s final season in 1976.

We’ve used these two metrics to help gauge where a season might be headed. From 2017-2020, Tennessee lost 18 3+ possession games, 4.5 per year. In 2021, the Vols lost three 3+ possession games; they were the same ones they were 3+ possession underdogs in. But against Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, the Vols were also more feisty than usual, giving hope that we won’t spend too much longer talking about three possessions to the negative.

There’s clearly room for improvement here:

Tennessee 3+ Possession Losses Since 2001

  • 0: 2015
  • 1: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2016
  • 2: 2007, 2009, 2014

But this season is also an opportunity to measure progress not just from the floor, but to the ceiling. To do that, the Vols will likely need to excel in one-possession games. Tennessee went 1-3 in such contests last year (on cue: “Referees!”). And that’s been a problem for the program as well.

In the last 15 years, only one Tennessee team has a winning record in multiple one-possession games. That’s the 2019 Vol squad, who lost to Georgia State and BYU but beat Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana. Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-2 record in such games helped his overall one-possession record finish at 5-3 at UT. Butch Jones went 10-14; Derek Dooley went 3-7.

(Phillip Fulmer, by the way, went 48-23-1. What’s the balance there of talent + confidence + coaching? That’s a fun conversation for a different off-season.)

How has this part looked in these last 15 years?

Tennessee in One-Possession Games Since 2007

YearOne Possession GamesRecord

Best way to win them remains not to play them. But at Tennessee, we’ve been able to bank on around four of these a year when the Vols are competitive. Will the 2022 squad just thrash everyone outside of Alabama and Georgia and rise above all this? Maybe, but keep this in mind too:

Tennessee in One-Possession Games 1989-2001

YearOne Possession GamesRecord

Those Decade of Dominance Vol squads played 4.3 one-possession games per year. Again, however you want to argue for talent or Majors/Fulmer instilling the “clutch” DNA, they won them more than they lost them. Tennessee was under .500 in these games just four times in these 13 years.

So from the floor, can the Vols keep everyone within reach? Can we get into the fourth quarter with Alabama and Georgia and think about score, onside kick, score? Do we have a real chance to win every Saturday?

And to reach the ceiling, what will this team do in close games? You want to blow everyone out, fantastic. But if not, can this Tennessee team earn a winning record in one-possession games, just the second UT team since 2007 to pull that off?

The difference between 7-5 and 9-3 is usually what happens in close games. Where will this Vol squad end up?

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Isaac Bishop
Isaac Bishop
3 months ago

If only the ball bounced just right we would’ve been a 9 or 10 win team with the bowl last year. Not just the refs, but if Hooker started game one and didn’t get hurt at the end of the Ole Miss game. On the flip side it shows that Tennessee was solidly a bowl team even if they lost to UK. It reinforces just how good Heupel’s first year was compared to his predecessors. I like that the championship caliber teams of ’97 and ’98 both went undefeated in one possession games. Granted, UGA steamrolled most opponents and didn’t… Read more »

3 months ago

It would be interesting to see what these numbers look like when they are broken down by who is favored going into a game. A one-possession game (win or lose) against a team you are heavily favored against hits differently than a one-possession game in which you were not expected to compete. The 1998 team may have gone 5-0 in every one-possession game, but the Auburn and Arkansas contests that year stand out as games that were a lot closer than they should have been, and so those victories were more of a relief than a cause of celebration. I… Read more »