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Steering Tennessee Out of Football Bizarro World


Me am Bizarro Vol. Me loves SEC basement.

Tennessee has been a strange team over the past six seasons.

The Vols won either nine or ten games four of those years, but won just five games in the other two. And the two years they were in the national top ten in total defense? Yup, they were those couple of five-win seasons.

If you look at correlations, it goes even further through the looking glass.

When looking at national rank, you would expect to see a negative correlation between rank and wins. A negative correlation means that wins rise as rank approaches one. A positive correlation would mean that wins rise as rank approaches 119.

UT’s offense works exactly how you would think. The correlation between Tennessee’s average rank in total and scoring offense and wins is -0.926. Six seasons do not make up a tremendously large sample size, but the result fits in exactly how you would expect. The better the Vol offense was, the more games UT won.

The defense is the exact opposite though. The correlation between Tennessee’s average rank in total and scoring defense and wins is positive 0.751. That would indicate that the better the defense was, the fewer games they won. Huh?

I think the main cause of this statistical weirdness has to do with extraordinarily poor timing.

The Tennessee defense had an average rank of 19.5 in 2003, and the Vols won 10 games. That’s normal. The 2004 season was fairly normal too; the defense wasn’t elite, but it and the offense both were above average.

That defense then decided only to get elite in 2005, the year the floor fell out under Randy Sanders, and in 2008, the year of the failed Clawfense experiment. Whoops.

Some might blame the disappearance of the running game for the offensive woes, but they would only be partially right. Tennessee ranked above 70th in the nation in rushing just once in the past six seasons (2004). The nine- and ten-win seasons in ’06 and ’07 were largely built on the golden arm of Erik Ainge, but when the passing game failed in ’05 and ’08 the running game wasn’t there to carry the load.

As Roll Bama Roll’s outsidethesidelines pointed out in his 2007 Pythagorean wins post, those 10 wins that year were a complete mirage. That season was the nadir of defense under the Chavis administration, clocking in with an average defensive rank of 65.5, and the offense was downright middle-of-the-road.

The encouraging thing for Tennessee fans is that Monte Kiffin should keep the defense in the top quartile or quintile in the country. That leaves the burden of improvement on Kiffin the Younger and his offensive staff.

Tennessee’s new zone blocking scheme and the inflow of talent should get Tennessee’s run game to mediocre at worst, with “pretty good” a distinct possibility. Nothing could possibly be more complex than what Dave Clawson threw at Jonathan Cropmton and company last year, so some improvement in the passing game should occur via simplification (spring struggles notwithstanding).

The upshot to that is this: since 2000, when Tennessee has had both offensive categories (running and passing) ranked better than the 80s nationally, they’ve won at least eight games. When both are abject disasters like in 2005 and 2008 (average ranks of 82.5 and 97.5, respectively), that’s when disaster strikes.

The Vols shouldn’t start worse than 2-2, and a home win over rebuilding UCLA makes that 3-1. They could easily finish 3-1 as well with wins over Memphis, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. That right there constitutes a return to a bowl, leaving home games against Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina to determine how high the season’s ceiling goes.

That said, I’m not going to make any binding predictions about next season right now; it’s ludicrously early for that. Even so, Tennessee should be better on offense, since it would be really hard to get worse, and the defense shouldn’t fall off much while executing its new scheme.

A bad loss is almost certainly coming in Gainesville early on in the season, which will undoubtedly cause a lot of people to pile on Lane Kiffin again for his offseason actions. However if a bowl-bound Tennessee team does win three of its last four, and especially if it pulls off a win in Oxford on November 14, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a lot of those same people suddenly change their tune.