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How Much Has Tennessee Really Improved?

I am a firm believer that the final score doesn't tell you everything you need to know about what happened in a football game. The better team can sometimes lose. We saw that this year when Ohio State was the better team against USC for about 55 of the 60 minutes, but the Trojans pulled it out in the end. Additionally, Ohio State left a lot of points on the field thanks to its game plan whereas USC got about as much out of its team as it could.

A similar thing happened with the Florida-Tennessee game last Saturday. Tennessee got to claim a moral victory by losing only by 10, as opposed to losing by 24 last year. It was a big success, right?

Eh, sort of. Tennessee is bound to get plenty of mileage in the press and on the recruiting trail from the game, so in that sense it was a success. If you look at what actually happened with a cool head, it doesn't come out so nicely for the Vols.


CATEGORY 2008 2009
First Downs 16 13
Third Down Conv. 4-11 5-12
Total Yards 258 210
Yards per Pass 5.8 4.9
Yards per Rush 3.1 3.7
Turnovers 3 2


Tennessee was marginally better on third down and rushed for an extra half yard a carry. They had one fewer turnover, which is a plus. Outside of that, the Vols were worse than last year against Florida. First downs were down slightly, Jonathan Crompton's yards per pass went down by about a yard, and the total yardage declined by half a field length.

The difference in the final score came from drive outcomes:

Drive End 2008 Count 2009 Count
Total 9 8
Field Goal 0 2
TD 1 1
Punt 4 3
Downs 1 0
Turnover 3 2


The Vols had one fewer drive than in 2008, but they basically shaved off a punt and turned two turnovers into field goals. Twice in the '08 game UT turned it over on plays that started from Florida's one yard line, which is obviously in field goal range. Otherwise, the Vols performance was either slightly better, in the case of rushing, or worse, in the case of passing and overall production.

But the Vol defense sure did a number on the Florida offense, right?


CATEGORY 2008 2009
First Downs 16 20
Third Down Conv. 8-13 8-13
Total Yards 243 323
Yards per Pass 6.4 6.1
Yards per Rush 3.8 4.7
Turnovers 0 2


For all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over Florida's offensive performance and the cheerleading for Monte Kiffin's defense, the Gator offense was noticeably better compared with a year ago. Yards per pass was slightly down but basically even, but the rushing was up about a full yard per carry.

Turnovers are the one thing that stick out like a sore thumb. They often do. They were a huge factor in Florida's loss to Ole Miss last year, for instance. They were the difference in this game between the final score that happened and one similar to last years'. Take a look at the drives:

Drive End 2008 Count 2009 Count
Total 7 8
Field Goal 3 3
TD 2 1
Punt 1 1
Downs 1 0
Turnover 0 2


Tennessee still only forced one punt, just like last year. It was the turnovers, and specifically Tim Tebow's fumble that resulted in the 23-13 score. Without it, that drive probably becomes a touchdown (or given Tennessee's stoutness in the red zone, a field goal) and we're on our way to a garbage time rout. Instead, a Florida defense that thinks the game is going on ice with a score gets thrown out on the field, plays sloppily (including a bad, but totally deserved personal foul penalty), and allows its first touchdown of the season.

I guess the whole point of this is to say that Tennessee might not be as turned around as most are thinking right now. Overall, Florida was better than last year and Tennessee was mildly worse. Turnovers happened to make the final score not accurately reflect the stats, but that's not the first time that's ever happened.

This also means that in two straight games against the same opponents from last season, Tennessee has either been the same or worse on offense. To wit, here's a glance at UT versus UCLA in 2008-09:

2008: 17 offensive points, 366 total yards, 4.5 per pass, 5.2 per rush, 2 turnovers
2009: 13 offensive points, 208 total yards, 3.6 per pass, 2.6 per rush, 4 turnovers

Year over year, this makes two opponents against whom that Jonathan Crompton's yards per pass has declined by a yard a toss. In two consecutive games in this year, Tennessee has been held to no more than 210 total yards. These are not signs of progress no matter what the final score says.

To Lane Kiffin's credit, he's been good at coaxing a better yards per point average out of his team than Phillip Fulmer and Dave Clawson got last year. However, not much else about his offense is looking better statistically, and it could have been worse on Saturday if Florida's defense didn't tackle on a high school level.

Improvement on the scoreboard is nice, and it's certainly better than the alternative. However, it's going to take more than a moral victory in the Swamp to get Tennessee more wins than last year. Simply outperforming last year's offense noticeably on a down-by-down basis would be a good start.