The Tennessee Volunteers were fortunate to escape their opener against Appalachian State in Week 1. This outcome was no fluke, either. The Mountaineers nearly came away with another top ten win because they played just as well as their opponent did.
This review is based on Bill Connelly's Five Factors of winning, sacks are counted as pass plays, and it doesn't include the couple of plays before halftime when ASU was just killing the clock. It also doesn't include overtime, as college football overtime isn't representative of how a game goes.
|Team||Runs 10+||Pct.||Passes 20+||Pct.||Explosive Pct.|
One key thing the Vols needed to improve on over last year was explosiveness in the pass game. Joshua Dobbs was efficient enough with the short game, but intermediate and longer passes were a clear weakness for the team.
Well, it's not gotten better through one week. Dobbs did put his long TD pass to Josh Malone on the money, but he failed to generate any other big plays with his arm.
Even worse, the run game didn't really find success with explosive plays either because the offensive line was getting manhandled by the App State defensive front on too many occasions. Shaky line play was a hallmark of the 2015 Vols, and it doesn't appear to have gotten any better.
The UT defense did a good job in preventing explosive pass plays, and the one that it allowed was on kind of a wonky play with a weird throw where the DB being in the proper position actually was a detriment. The explosive run rate for the Mountaineers is a bit higher than you'd want for an SEC defense against a G5 team, but Appalachian specializes in the run and was one of the most prolific teams on the ground a year ago.
The main measure here is success rate. Watch this short video if you need to brush up on it.
|Team||Run SR||Pass SR||Overall SR||Red Zone SR|
The fact that ASU had success on more than half of its run plays is worrying. It wasn't just the Volunteer offensive line that underwhelmed; the defensive front got pushed around far too much.
The UT offense felt like it was sputtering, and the success rates confirm that notion. Low-to-mid 40s is average, so Mike DeBord's attack was not performing well. UT had a success rate of 46.1% on its first drive, an extended campaign that ended with a field goal. From there, it seemed like ASU figured things out and didn't allow the Vols really to get rolling again except for a second half drive when Mountaineers were dropping like flies with cramps.
|Team||1Q SR||2Q SR||3Q SR||4Q SR|
Tennessee's offense was a model of consistency. Too bad it was consistently subpar.
The Mountaineers' sole A+ drive came in the second quarter when they went 77 yards on 12 plays in six minutes to crank out a touchdown. Their first two drives in the third quarter went nine and seven plays, respectively, but the former ended in a spectacular pick by Cam Sutton and the latter in a punt in large part due to penalties.
The Vols' defense held when it mattered in the fourth, pitching a success rate shutout in three plays after a long ASU punt return set the team up 28 yards out. Appalachian had to settle for an ultimately futile field goal attempt that kept the game tied despite the special teams breakdown.
Efficiency by Player
|Player||Comp. Pct.||Pass Eff.||Yards/Att||Sacks||Pass SR|
|Joshua Dobbs minus TD Pass||53.8%||78.0||4.4||2||35.7%|
The 67-yard bomb by Dobbs—while, again, a good throw—drastically masked the signal caller's performance. That one throw aside, Dobbs was the picture of every offseason criticism thrown his way. He completed a low percentage of passes for a very low yards per attempt with a below average success rate. It's tough for me to say how much of this is on Dobbs, the conservatism of DeBord, and/or a wide receiving corps lacking big time playmakers, but this won't get it done.
ASU's Lamb was a better Joshua Dobbs than Dobbs was, connecting on a higher percentage of low-risk throws while using his mobility to avoid sacks.
The fact that Dobbs took two sacks and Lamb took none is another indictment of Tennessee's line play.
Malone had the big strike, but Williams had the best game of any of the Volunteer receivers as all five of his catches were success plays. UT needed the sophomore to step up this season, and he came through on Thursday night. Wolf continued to be a nice option from the tight end spot, too. This was a disappointing game for Smith, who only got targeted once—technically twice, as he was the intended receiver on Dobbs's interception, but the NCAA doesn't log targets on picks—and he came up empty. In some respects it was a little disappointing for Malone too, as both of his receptions came on the same drive. The other nine regulation drives and overtime? No catches that didn't get called back due to penalty.
Hurd was clearly the best runner of the bunch, and he got nearly as many yards per rush attempt as Dobbs did per pass attempt when you take out the long TD. Dobbs's total is depressed by his fumbled shotgun snap early in the third quarter that got logged as a 12-yard rushing loss, but even without that his success rate was only 25%. Presumably Tennessee didn't want him taking hits against ASU, so his running wasn't a big part of the game plan.
On the other side, Marcus Cox had a superlative game with 5.3 YPC on 23 carries with a 61.9% success rate. He also caught all four of his targets for 8.3 per grab, albeit only with a 25% success rate. He was the difference maker that kept the Mountaineer offense moving.
|Team||Avg. Starting Position||Plays in Opp. Territory||Pct. Of Total|
The evenness here surprised me some because, watching the game, it felt like ASU consistently had worse field position. That's why we go to the stats.
A trip inside the 40 is a drive where the team has a first down at the opponent's 40 or closer or where it scores from further out than that. A red zone trip is a drive with a first down at the opponent's 20 or closer.
|Team||Drives||Trips Inside 40||Points||Red Zone Trips||Points|
The Vols scored on more of their trips inside the 40, as they had a touchdown with two field goals versus App State's pair of touchdowns.
It's hard not to feel for ASU kicker Michael Rubino, who missed both a PAT and a 42-yard field goal attempt, either of which would've given his team more than 13 points in regulation. Whether making either or both would've been enough to win is an open question since Tennessee would've adjusted its decision making with a different score on the board.
The Vols turned it over twice, and both times were costly. The first was a muffed punt by Sutton that gave ASU a 36-yard field. The Mountaineers would end up cashing that in for a touchdown. The latter was a horrible throw by Dobbs that killed a drive that had gotten inside field goal range shortly before the half.
ASU turned it over just once, when Sutton killed a promising drive with a great leaping INT.
This doesn't entirely cover it, though. Both teams put it on the ground too often, but two of the Vols' own fumbles that they recovered looked easily recoverable for the Mountaineers. One of those, of course, was the game-deciding touchdown. Further, Dobbs had a drive in the second half where he threw not one but two passes that likely would've been pick sixes had he not thrown them so high.
Tennessee usually doesn't play on Thursdays, so this game was a departure for its usual routine. Jalen Reeves-Maybin got an early ejection for targeting. The offense was very vanilla, probably to avoid showing any new wrinkles off to future opponents. Dobbs clearly was not supposed to run the ball much at all prior to overtime, taking away one of the offense's best options. The team could've been looking past this game towards the unconventional game against Virginia Tech at Bristol next week. Appalachian State is one of the best Group of 5 teams and likely is better than multiple SEC East foes that the Vols will face later this year.
You can make up any excuses/explanations you want, but Tennessee needed questionable opponent time management at the the fourth quarter's close, an overtime period, and missed kicks to win its first game. Dobbs didn't look like an improved passer except on one play. Both lines frequently got whipped by their opponents.
Dobbs not getting to run is the explanation that carries the most weight to me. So much more can open up when the defense has to respect the quarterback carrying the ball, and it didn't take the Mountaineers long to figure out that they largely didn't have to. Tennessee's offense should look better in conference play once Dobbs is allowed to run more and take a few hits.
Still, App State's offense was not in a hurry and was content to pound the run. That sounds a lot like a few teams on UT's schedule, and all of them save perhaps Vandy are better than ASU is. Holding Appalachian to 3-13 on third down is the best single thing that the Vol defense did, but sitting on the ball and pounding the run was more effective for the Mountaineers than that one stat would lead you to believe.
It's a bit early to hit the panic button just yet. Ohio State in 2014 struggled with a Navy team not as good as this App State outfit in Week 1 and lost to VT in Week 2 on the way to eventually winning the national championship. I'm not telling you to crown the Vols or anything, but recent history shows that a slow start doesn't necessarily mean doom. Besides, Texas A&M has also shown us the past two years that fast starts can mean nothing too.
However, it is eminently concerning that the Volunteer passing game is still more horizontal than vertical and couldn't get explosive plays on making guys miss. Most of the time, Tennessee's offense is either running the ball or using the pass as an extended run play. And not to take away anything from App State's skill and effort, but the mediocre-to-bad line play for the Vols is very worrying too. Last year's UT lines were sketchy, but this year they were supposed to be better thanks to the experience from a year ago. Nope. They're still sketchy.
If nothing else, Butch Jones and his staff will have plenty to talk about when reviewing this film with their players. They also have a couple of extra days to prepare for Week 2, and every coach will tell you the biggest improvement comes between the first two weeks.
Whether this was 2014 OSU struggling with Navy or 2015 Auburn needing OT to beat Jacksonville State remains to be seen. Either way, Tennessee's quest for the East crown might be a bit more dicey than the near-unanimous preseason consensus would have you believe.