Start Faster: Vols on the Opening Drive

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Even for a team on a six-game winning streak, little came easy for Tennessee last year. In the Vols’ four-game sweep of the SEC East’s second tier (South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt) – our first such sweep since 2015 – Tennessee had to come from behind in all four games.

That’s because the Vols struggled mightily on the game’s opening drive, on both sides of the ball.

Take out the win over Chattanooga, and in a dozen FBS contests last year, Tennessee’s opening drives ended this way:

2019 OFFENSE

  • Three-and-out: 4
  • Punt: 3
  • Turnover: 3
  • Touchdown: 1
  • Field Goal: 1

The lone touchdown: 15 plays, 80 yards against BYU, ending on a batted ball fourth down conversion in the end zone. The lone field goal came after intercepting UAB on the game’s first play, then only advancing the ball a single yard from the 19 in three plays.

The defense? Well, they didn’t help each other out:

2019 DEFENSE

  • Touchdown: 6
  • Field Goal: 2
  • Turnover: 2
  • Three-and-out: 1
  • Punt: 1

The Vols gave up six on the opening drive against Georgia State (short field), Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina (first play), and Kentucky. Especially when you’re looking for the upset, that’s not the way you want to get started.

So this made me curious: is this a pattern?

Different coordinators, but here’s what the Vols did on the opening drive in 2018 against FBS competition:

2018 OFFENSE

  • Three-and-out: 4
  • Punt: 4
  • Turnover: 2
  • Field Goal: 1

In Jeremy Pruitt’s two seasons and 23 contests against FBS foes, the Vols have scored a touchdown on the opening drive once, and scored points only three times. Of those three scores, a field goal at Auburn in 2018 was the only one against a Power 5 opponent.

The defense in Pruitt’s first year:

2018 DEFENSE

  • Punt: 4
  • Touchdown: 3
  • Field Goal: 2
  • Three-and-out: 2

So better than their 2019 counterparts, but still surrendered points on 45% of the opponent’s opening drives. In Pruitt’s 23 FBS games, the Vols have scored on the opening drive three times, and allowed points on the opening drive 13 times. Simply put: the Vols have to start faster. Play from behind for so long and you can only expect so much success.

I was curious about Jim Chaney here too, and was a little alarmed when I ran the 2012 numbers for Tennessee (all via ESPN.com’s play-by-play data). Even the vaunted Bray-Hunter-CP offense scored just three times on their opening drives, though they were all touchdowns. Those Vols went three-and-out four times, punted twice, and turned it over twice.

But Chaney’s run at Georgia ended with far more success. In his last year at Georgia in 2018, Chaney’s offense scored a touchdown on the opening drive six times in 13 FBS games, plus two field goals. Those dudes were not messing around and almost never played from behind.

Tennessee probably isn’t good enough to jump on everyone they play this fall. But even if they’re better than last year, you can’t keep falling behind and expect it not to cost you. The Vols got away with it at the end of last season against the SEC East. But a faster start in 2020 could lead to more breathing room at the end, setting an initial tone the Vols have struggled to establish going back to the Butch Jones years. I’ll be curious to see how they come out of the gate on Saturday night.

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