Third Downs: Quality in Quantity

Whether trying to keep up with an elite rival or finding themselves in a toss-up, the margins are thin for this Tennessee team. We’re accustomed to saying that in a coach’s first year, when it’s often led to blowout losses. But these Vols went deep into the night in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa. And they were the proverbial one play away against currently-ranked #10 Ole Miss and #17 Pittsburgh.

It’s never really one play, especially so when the Vols are playing at such a fast pace. Tennessee’s offense is eighth nationally in total snaps, its defense 127th in snaps allowed. I’ll keep saying it this year, and who knows how long after that: we’re still getting used to watching football this way. Not only did individual plays stand out more in the past because there were fewer of them, you also had so much more time between plays to internalize the last one.

This continues to feel much more like basketball: important stuff happens all night, but you’re going to pay much more attention to what happens at the end. For example, the most important play in the Tennessee/Ole Miss game, as it related to its impact on the outcome, was probably the fumbled punt. But because it happened just four minutes into a night that stretched into morning, we talked about it far less than many of the evening’s additional festivities.

Thin margins at a fast pace means you’ll have more opportunities for moments that can swing the game. It’s never just one play, but there are now more individual plays that can make a big difference. Case in point: what Tennessee is doing on third down on both sides of the ball.

On offense, the Vols are 15th nationally in third down conversions (vs FBS) at 47.96%. This is in spite of a 2-for-13 performance in Tuscaloosa. Last year the Vols were 118th in this department, converting at 30.23%. The last time Tennessee was north of 45% in this category: 2015, when the offense rebounded from a 6-of-18 performance against Oklahoma to hit at least 40% in every other FBS game. We tend not to think of the 2015 offense as one of the best we’ve seen recently because the 2016 version was better. But converting third downs covers a multitude of sins: witness the ’16 Vols going 5-of-14 at South Carolina.

A point I’m sure we’ll return to against Georgia: Tennessee’s worst two performances here are, no surprise, at Florida and at Alabama. In Gainesville the Vols came up empty on a 3rd-and-4 and a 3rd-and-6 in the first half. And, of course, had the back-breaking drop on 4th-and-5 at the Florida 30 in the third quarter.

In Tuscaloosa, there were actually far more opportunities lost: 3rd-and-1 on the opening drive, 3rd-and-1 after the fumble that led to consecutive false starts, 3rd-and-1 on the next drive in a tie game, 3rd-and-2 on the next drive. Then, following the blocked punt, the Vols had 3rd-and-5 at the Bama 10. And, of course, 4th-and-1 at their own 47 down 24-17 with four minutes to play in the fourth, when they elected not to go for it.

I don’t know if any improvements in third-and-short should be expected against Georgia, other than learning not to run into the teeth of the defense and hope for the best. But the Vols did a good job putting themselves in position to succeed.

At its peak, this offense does what it did to Missouri, and never even faces third down until they’re up 28-0. The more realistic picture is what it did to South Carolina: 12-of-17 on third down, in part because they did such a good job putting themselves in manageable situations. Can we see something like that at Kentucky, currently 51st in third down defense vs FBS foes?

Of course, speaking of defense: Tennessee is 122nd in this department, giving up 48.76% on third down vs FBS foes. Alabama was a brutal 15-of-20.

Again, pace: in regulation vs power five, the only Tennessee games of the post-Fulmer era to even feature 20 third down attempts are:

  • 2021 Alabama (15-of-20)
  • 2021 Ole Miss (11-of-21)
  • 2021 Pittsburgh (8-of-20)
  • 2016 Missouri (11-of-20 vs Heupel)
  • 2014 Florida (7-of-20; 16 total punts in this game)
  • 2014 Ole Miss (7-of-20; 18 total punts in this game)

So yeah, don’t let Bama convert 75% on third down. But the only way you even approach this number of conversions is to play at this pace, or be so poor offensively everybody gets more turns.

Consider though: the Vol defense made a stop on third down 10 times against the Rebels, and a dozen times against Pittsburgh. These are the kind of numbers we’ll need to see at Kentucky, currently 27th nationally in third down conversions vs FBS. That figure includes abysmal performances against Florida (1-of-9) and LSU (2-of-7), even in victory. They were much more manageable against Georgia with nine conversions, but on 19 attempts.

The Vols are close enough to be interesting against the most talented teams on their schedule, and a genuine toss-up with the kind of opponent Kentucky appears to be. Whether it’s beating the Cats or staying close with Georgia, third downs will be of great importance on both sides of the ball. The bye week is great, but protecting a defense that’s simply on the field far too often will still be an issue the next two weeks. The margins are thin, but the opportunities are there. It feels strange to say with so many more plays per game, but I feel like third downs have never meant more.

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