In case you live under a rock, Tennessee is 0-2 in football, having lost home games to Georgia State and BYU as a favorite. In my weekly column the last two weeks, I addressed the weirdness of how the social media managers behind the @Vol_Football account handled the Vols’ loss to the Panthers and how the program’s average record is roughly 7-5 since they won the 1998 national championship.
Now we’re looking at some advanced numbers to identify what’s behind Tennessee’s poor play, using play-by-play data from the Volunteers’ last two games.
Playing behind schedule
Tennessee picked up a first down or scored a touchdown on just 27.4 percent of its passing plays in its first two games. (For perspective, 33 percent of Georgia State/BYU’s pass attempts resulted in a first down or touchdown, so it took Tennessee almost one more pass play than its opponents, on average, to move the chains.)
The team’s inefficiency on first and second down is largely responsible for this.
On the Volunteers’ 29 third downs on offense, they had an average distance of 6.8 yards to go to pick up a first down, setting up lots of 3rd & long situations.
An old NFL.com story highlighted the importance of getting at least four yards on first down, and the Vols have faced 2nd & long on nearly half of their second-down plays.
Tennessee ran 61 plays on first down against Georgia State and BYU, and it gained three or fewer yards on 30 of those plays. 28 of those plays saw the Volunteers gain two or fewer yards, and a third of the time (20 of 61 plays), Tennessee has faced 2nd & 10+ after not gaining any yards, or losing yards, on first down.
On average, Tennessee has faced 7.6 yards to go on second down this season, and the Vols have averaged just 3.6 yards per second-down pass attempt.
It doesn’t help that Tennessee has allowed five sacks in two games (11th-worst among Power Five teams) that totaled 42 sack yards (113th nationally).
Another sign of the Volunteers’ questionable offensive line play is that roughly 19 percent of their run plays (14 of 75 plays) have resulted in no gain or a loss of yards.
In the last five years (from 2019 to 2015), Tennessee has landed the No. 13, No. 21, No. 17, No. 14 and No. 4 recruiting classes in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, but the overwhelming talent advantage — at least on paper and according to recruiting rankings — hasn’t materialized in the Vols’ first two non-conference games.
Inefficiency on 4th down
Tennessee has gone for it on 4th down five times in its first two games and it only has one first down or touchdown to show for its aggression.
The Volunteers have thrown it three times on 4th & 3 and rushed twice on 4th & 1.
They were stuffed on both of the run plays, gaining zero yards and resulting in a turnover on downs.
Two of the pass attempts on 4th & 3 also resulted in no gain, while they were able to reach the end zone on a five-yard touchdown connection from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to Jauan Jennings in the first quarter against BYU, and if we’re being honest, Tennessee was lucky to have scored on the play.
— GoVolsXtra (@GoVolsXtra) September 7, 2019
Tennessee is one of 14 FBS programs that are tied for 14th nationally with five fourth-down conversion attempts this season. Of the 27 teams that have gone for it on fourth down five or more times through Week 2, only Kansas has a worse fourth-down conversion percentage than Tennessee.
The Jayhawks are 0-for-5.
A lack of explosive plays on offense
Tennessee has run 148 offensive plays in two games this season and the Volunteers have just 24 plays from scrimmage that resulted in a gain of at least 10 yards and only seven plays of 20 or more yards.
Those two figures are concerning.
That means roughly one in every six offensive plays (16.2%) has resulted in at least a 10-yard gain, while roughly one in every 20 plays (4.7%) results in a gain of at least 20 yards.
For perspective, Oklahoma leads the country in both explosive play categories through two weeks.
The Sooners have had 52 plays of at least 10 yards and 23 plays that went for 20 or more yards.
The only Power Five teams that have played two games this season and have had fewer plays that resulted in a gain of 10 or more yards are Georgia Tech (which is in its first season of a new offensive system under Geoff Collins after transitioning from the triple option), Rutgers (no explanation needed), UCLA (uhh, not a great sign for the Chip Kelly era) and West Virginia (which had to replace its head coach, now-NFL quarterback Will Grier and its top four receivers from last season).
While Tennessee’s defense has given up only four plays this season that went for 20 yards or more, it has also allowed 31 plays that resulted in a gain of at least 10 yards. Ignoring Georgia State’s final kneel down, 22.7 percent of the Volunteers’ defensive snaps this season have resulted in their opponent gaining at least 10 yards.
So every four to five plays, on average, Georgia State and BYU were gaining double-digit yards.