We’ve made much of Tennessee running fewer plays than any team in the country last year. The Vols took a few overtime snaps, but are nonetheless 69th in total plays through three games this year (stats via SportSource Analytics). Tennessee is averaging 68.3 snaps per game; last year it was 59.7.
The Vols are also more balanced on first down so far this year. Last year Tennessee ran the ball 69.7% of the time on first down; this year the Vols are at 61.4%. The late attempt to rally against Georgia State and the backup snaps against Chattanooga help balance out the equation.
Last year Tennessee’s passing was extremely balanced: Guarantano had 80 attempts on first down, 78 on second, and 82 on third. Under Jim Chaney, Guarantano has been far more likely to come out firing: 31 passing attempts on first down, compared to 23 on second down and 19 on third down. But at least so far, Guarantano’s struggles don’t seem to come alongside passing more on first down: he’s 20-of-31 (64.5%) for 339 yards (10.9 ypa) and no interceptions.
We know last year Guarantano was really good on third down; add in Tennessee’s struggles to run on third-and-short, and statistically it was better for the Vols to face third-and-medium and let him throw it. So far this year? Guess who leads the nation in third down completion percentage?
On third down, Guarantano is 16-of-19 (84.2%) for 171 yards (9.0 ypa). Now, you’ll point out that his completion percentage is higher because the Vols have been making too many safe throws behind the sticks on third down. And you’re right in part: despite the ridiculous completion percentage, the Vols have converted only eight times on his 19 third down passes. So far Tennessee’s entire third-and-short package has struggled: on 3rd-and-1-3, Guarantano is 3-for-3 for two yards and one first down.
Third-and-medium has been mixed: Guarantano is 4-of-7 for 40 yards with a touchdown, an interception, and only three first downs on those seven attempts. But on 3rd-and-7-10+, Guarantano is 9-of-9 for 129 yards (14.3 ypa). Four of those nine third-and-long completions led to first downs.
Guarantano has been okay on first down, and so far Chaney is mixing it up more than his predecessor. And he’s been really good, again, on third-and-long. It’s the tighter windows on third down where JG is struggling more. And you can see it on fourth down too: 1-of-3 for five yards coming via the tipped touchdown by Jennings against BYU.
Issues are also easier to spot when the Vols get thrown off schedule. Guarantano on second down this year: 13-of-23 (56.5%) for 114 yards (4.9 ypa). When the Vols are unsuccessful on first down and then go back to the pass on second down, it’s been less fruitful.
Some good news here: the Vols have allowed only 13 tackles for loss, 35th nationally. Tennessee was 116th in that category last year, 112th in 2017. The number may go down as the Vols face SEC competition starting this week, but there does appear to be some real improvement on the offensive line.
In the first half against Georgia State, the Vols had gains of two yards or less on first down seven times. But Tennessee still converted six of those series into first downs. Then in the second half, the Vols had gains of two yards or less on first down five times, and failed to turn any of those series into first downs or touchdowns.
By my count, the Vols were 12-of-17 in similar situations against BYU. That’s pretty good! There’s an unanswerable question in here about how much of this was/is mental: a case of the oh-nos in the second half against Georgia State, tightening up on third-and-medium and fourth down, etc. But on first down, and on third-and-long, Guarantano is still relatively sharp.
Going forward, the Vols could trade sharp for spectacular: Tennessee has just 10 plays of 20+ yards so far this season. That’s 98th nationally, and better than only a dozen teams who’ve played three games.
All of this goes into the pot for Jim Chaney when game-planning for the Gators. Your quarterback is good on first down and third-and-long. He’s struggled so far when the windows got tighter. You need more big plays, but also have to block well enough to set them up against the best defense you’ve seen yet. The offense may have a tendency to get tight, so how aggressive do you want to be in the early going when it backfired so spectacularly against this team last year?
I’m not sure what to expect. But it should be our best data point yet. Here’s hoping the Vols make it a good one.