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How Tennessee became the world's greatest team at blowing big leads

One blown lead is an accomplishment. Two blown leads is a trend. Three blown leads means you're so magnificent at failing that it defies logic.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee has led all five games it has played by two touchdowns. Tennessee has a losing record. Those two facts do not make sense when placed next to each other. Every other team that is good enough to have taken a 13-point lead in every game has won every game.

Ninety-seven percent of the time, Teams That Aren't Tennessee are able to take the talent that got them 13-point leads, combine them with 13-point leads and emerge with wins. Then we have Tennessee.

It is easy and fun to point to a certain thing Tennessee is doing causing it to fail. Butch Jones' playcalling gets too conservative. The defense lets up. Why can't they run the dang ball more?

But Tennessee's three come-from-ahead losses are far from carbon copies. Against Oklahoma, the Vols allowed a vicious late comeback, but lost in double overtime. Against Florida, the Vols allowed a vicious late comeback, but missed a game-winning FG attempt. Against Arkansas, there was no vicious late comeback. The Vols blew their lead in the first half and couldn't do a thing in the second, allowing a single Razorbacks touchdown.

They are unique flowers, each grotesque in its own way.

The offense can't stay on the field

Tennessee's offense in the second half of these three losses has been brutal. It's not due to horrific turnovers; they've only had one in the three games combined. It's primarily due to hyper-conservative play calling, the type that leads to a punt in three plays, the type that gives the ball back to the opposition quickly and with great field position.

Against Oklahoma, the Vols got the ball seven times in the second half. The results? Six punts, three of the three-and-out variety and a missed field goal.

What they were doing was obvious. With a big lead, Tennessee was happy to run, with 13 rushes on 19 first or second downs. They got too far behind the sticks and ran rinky-dink passing plays.

Let's check on our pals at Rocky Top Talk, ripping into the conservative playcalling:

Screen passes are fine as a constraint concept, if you want to punish a team for blitzing too much or too many people. Oklahoma wasn't falling into the trap precisely because screen passes on third-and-long are the most common traps there are. I have no problem with attempting a couple of screen passes a game. But Jones seems to have replaced the WR screen/swing passes on first and second down (which don't do yards/attempt any justice but at least get a few free yards) with typical RB screen passes on third down. I don't think that'll be something that gets not figured out. It was a great strategy in the '90s. It's not a great strategy now.

Against Florida, the Vols scored 10 points, with six drives resulting in a field goal, a touchdown, two punts, a fumble and a missed FG. Both punts were three-and-outs.

What they were doing was even more obvious. On 22 first or second downs, the Vols ran the ball 20 times and passed just twice. They got too far behind the sticks, and ran rinky-dink running plays.

Let's again turn to our pals at Rocky Top Talk:

I have no idea why there were three separate drives in the second half that consisted of basically dumping Jalen Hurd into the line twice before a called QB draw on third and long. I have no idea why zone read plays have been deemed too difficult or too "not Tennessee's offense," but designed QB draws and isolation plays are great. The staff can burn entire drives trying to ineffectually flail at a push that isn't going to come this year.

This is a scared-to-lose offense. It's an attempt to burn as much clock as possible, but when it fails, it has the opposite result, ending drives quickly without moving.

Against Arkansas, the drives stayed ineffective. Tennessee only got the ball four times in the second half, resulting in a field goal, two punts and a turnover on downs. But the problem wasn't over-conservative running. In fact, the Vols were hell bent on throwing the ball, with 15 passing attempts against just six designed runs by running backs.

It was a massive over correction, and it was just as ineffective as the things it was trying to correct.


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The defense can't get off the field

To be fair to the offense, the Vols haven't gotten the ball a lot. That's because Tennessee's opponents have been able to spend luxurious amounts of time on drives.

The Vols have also played scared-to-lose defense, notably against Florida. Over and over in the second half, they rushed only three at the quarterback and, over and over again, the Gators converted:

Rushing three late is often a horrible idea. Will Grier had time to throw and his receivers had time to get open, and Grier picked UT apart. The Gators went for it five times on fourth down ... and made it five times.

I assumed the rushing-of-three Tennessee did against Florida was also a problem against Oklahoma, which managed to convert on seven of eight third down attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime, as well as the lone fourth down it faced ... but no, I didn't really see it much. In fact, Tennessee routinely brought enough of a pass rush to make Sooners QB Baker Mayfield spend multiple seconds squirming away from tacklers. I wouldn't be surprised if Tennessee's consistent inability to bring down Mayfield led to Tennessee's insistence on sending three pass rushers.

However, the Vols routinely committed horrendous penalties, including three that gave Oklahoma first downs in the fourth quarter. And on third-and-short, they couldn't stop Samaje Perine. (To be fair, few can.)

Tennessee also couldn't get off the field against Arkansas. The Razorbacks converted five of the first six third down opportunities in the second half and picked up a fourth down conversion on the one they missed. That ate up the entire third quarter and half of the fourth on three 10-plus play drives.

But their problem wasn't Arkansas chip-chip-chipping away on first and second downs and converting, but rather hitting big plays. The Razorbacks had a gain of 51 on their first TD drive, gains of 44 and 33 on their second and a gain of 51 on an Arkansas drive that ended in a 22-yard missed FG. The most embarrassing play was a 25-yard pickup by Alex Collins on third-and-15 on a drive that ended with a game-tying field goal.

Leaving points

Jones has gotten a lot of flak for not going for two up 12 against Florida. For sure, he should. There is a large benefit for making it -- you're up 14! -- and no risk to missing it. Being up 12 is pretty much the same as being up 13.

Jones has also gotten flak for kicking a field goal at the 1-yard line against Oklahoma. For sure, he should. Jones said his reasoning came down to "analytics," which is an insult to everybody involved in analytics. As Bill Connelly wrote at the time, the expected points value of going for it was 4.6, more than the value of kicking a field goal. And if you miss, the opponent gets the ball near its goal line. Those extra points would've been nice, considering Oklahoma tied the game and sent it to OT.

This is what should upset Tennessee fans. The problems on defense stem somewhat from bad playcalling, but are quite varied. The problems on offense stem from predictable playcalling, but if neither running nor passing works, well, there isn't a lot you can do.

But making bad decisions about how many points your team should score is just making bad decisions. A great team can turn bad calls into good plays. A great team can't turn a field goal attempt into a touchdown.

A lot of things Tennessee has done late in games have been bad. Bad seems fixable, since the Vols have the talent to be good. But Jones' gamesmanship when it comes to scoring points with a lead has been stupid, and it is significantly harder to fix stupid.