Where can Tennessee make the most progress in 2023?

In 2021, the thing Tennessee was statistically worst at was sack rate allowed. The Vols surrendered 44 sacks, 124th nationally, and UT quarterbacks went down on 10.48% of their pass attempts. That percentage was the worst in Knoxville during the post-Fulmer era.

The 2021 offensive line sent Cade Mays to the NFL, but brought everyone else back. We thought if the Vols could just be even a little better here, it could make a huge difference in the program’s overall progress.

And they were far more than a little better in 2022.

With just 27 sacks allowed on 438 passing plays from Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton, last year Tennessee had a sack rate of 6.16%. That number was in line with what Tennessee’s offense was able to accomplish in keeping Josh Dobbs upright in 2015 and 2016. And it helped produce one of the best offenses in school history in 2022.

Where might similar progress be found for 2023?

When you win 11 games and your program has made more progress in two years (via SP+) than any other SEC team in the last 30 years? It’s a short list.

Outside of the tempo-infused stats, last year the thing Tennessee was statistically worst at was allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete a high percentage of their passes. Opponents hit on 62.6% of their throws last season, 97th nationally. Here again, so much overall progress has been made at Tennessee, you don’t have to go back very far to find something worse: the 2020 team allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.2% of their passes, and the 2018 team was at 63.0%.

We looked at this two off-seasons ago, when it represented the most statistical progress the 2021 team could make. The national average in completion percentage has leveled off in the 61% range the last three seasons, still up from what we saw in college football in 2013-17. Top 10 teams in this department now complete around two-thirds of their passes.

Using that as a benchmark, here’s every Power 5 quarterback to complete 66.7+% of their passes with at least 20 completions against Tennessee in the post-Fulmer era:

2022Jayden DanielsLSU71.1%6.7
2022Bryce YoungAlabama67.3%8.8
2022Spencer RattlerSouth Carolina81.1%11.8
2021Kenny PickettPittsburgh66.7%7.9
2021Emory JonesFlorida77.8%7.7
2021Bryce YoungAlabama72.1%8.6
2020Mac JonesAlabama80.6%12.5
2020Kyle TraskFlorida71.4%8.8
2020Kellen MondTexas A&M81.3%8.8
2019Kyle TraskFlorida71.4%10.5
2019Jake FrommGeorgia82.8%9.9
2018Will GrierWest Virginia73.5%12.6
2018Drew LockMissouri70.0%8.6
2018Kyle ShurmurVanderbilt88.6%10.5
2017Jalen HurtsAlabama66.7%10.1
2016Jarod EvansVirginia Tech71.4%7.6
2015Jake CokerAlabama77.8%9.1
2013Marcus MariotaOregon69.7%13.8
2013A. Carta-SamuelsVanderbilt77.8%6.7
2012Aaron MurrayGeorgia76.9%11
2012Connor ShawSouth Carolina68.8%11.1
2010Mike HartlineKentucky70.5%6.2

You can see how this played out three different ways for Tennessee’s defense in 2022. At LSU, Jayden Daniels completed 32 of 45 passes, but the Vols kept everything in front of them as their lead swelled. With Alabama, the Vols went shootout mode (against the eventual number one overall pick) and came out on top. And of course, at South Carolina, it went wrong on both sides of the ball.

One big difference here: the Vols sacked Jayden Daniels five times. They only got Bryce Young once, Spencer Rattler once. Of the 22 quarterbacks on the above list, how many got sacked more than twice?

  • 2022 Jayden Daniels at LSU: 5 sacks
  • 2018 Kyle Shurmur vs Vanderbilt: 3 sacks
  • 2016 Jerod Evans vs Virginia Tech: 3 sacks
  • 2015 Jake Coker at Alabama: 5 sacks

That’s a pair of comfortable wins in huge games, and as close at Tennessee came to the Crimson Tide in 15 years (plus the weirdness of the season-ending loss to Vanderbilt in 2018). Even as college football grows in passing efficiency and the Vols continue to face elite SEC quarterbacks, getting to the passer can make an enormous difference here.

In that regard, the Vols weren’t bad at all last year: 31 sacks, 42nd nationally. Tennessee dropped quarterbacks from Pittsburgh, LSU, Kentucky, and Clemson at least four times each, making a big difference in each of those ranked wins.

Here’s the opportunity: Byron Young had seven of the 16 sacks in those four wins (talk about bigtime players in bigtime games: that means every one of his sacks came in those four games last year).

Who steps up next?

In the midst of all these conversations that come with the 11-win territory – can the next QB shine as bright as the last QB, if so who’s catching all those touchdowns this time, etc. – don’t miss the few but meaningful ways this team could make progress over last season. If Tennessee is just one step better here, makes life just a little less comfortable for opposing quarterbacks (and/or the secondary makes life just a little less comfortable for receivers), Tennessee’s defense can make an significant difference in the ultimate outcome for the 2023 Vols.

How to make progress over last season is a beautifully short list.

Finding that progress anyway would be even sweeter.

Go Vols.

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1 month ago

Will there be a Gameday on Rocky Top Pick ‘Em pool this year?