Butch Jones’ Tennessee Volunteers just won a road game with a buzzer-beating Hail Mary 10 seconds after giving up a 51-yard, go-ahead touchdown. This is the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen to Jones’ Vols, based on all recent precedent.
In 2015, Tennessee ...
- led Oklahoma by 17 in the first quarter and lost.
- led Florida by 13 in the fourth quarter and lost.
- led Arkansas by 14 in the first quarter and lost.
- led Alabama by one in the fourth quarter and lost.
Through five games in 2016, Tennessee has ...
- trailed Appalachian State by 10 in the second quarter and won.
- trailed Virginia Tech by 14 in the first quarter and won.
- trailed Florida by 21 in the second quarter and won.
- trailed Georgia by 10 in the third quarter and won.
The Vols have gone from being the last team you count on to being the last team you count out.
Is there a way to set up a "Tennessee is down by 14/21" alert so I know it's time to turn to the Vols game?— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) October 1, 2016
So what changed*?
In our Tennessee season preview, which was titled "If Tennessee learns how to close big games, the hype will all pay off," Bill Connelly described some of UT’s main obstacles: shaky QB play, offense that got predictable late, an over-reliance on power over speed at running back, and iffy kicking.
QB play has unquestionably improved ... late in games. First Half Josh Dobbs is benchable. Second Half Josh Dobbs is Heisman-caliber.
In first halves, Dobbs has thrown for a passer rating of 103.83, which ranks worse than 100th in the country in that span, with a 52.7 completion percentage, 5-to-3 total touchdown-to-interceptions ratio, and 3.14 yards per rushing attempt.
After halftime, those soar to 200.01 (fourth in the country in that span), 64.4, 13-to-3, and 4.89.
As a team, it’s sometimes boiled down to the favorite word of coaches everywhere: execution. Against Florida, the Vols played fine in both halves, other than dropping key pass after key pass while falling behind early.
The Vols still don’t trust the explosive Alvin Kamara enough, giving him 17 percent of their touches, as opposed to about 16 last year. They rank in the bottom half of the country in 10-yard gains and 30-yard gains, and more big swings early could help avoid these early deficits.
But while the Vols aren’t much more aggressive on a play-to-play basis (they’re actually passing less than they did last year, somehow), being put in holes has forced them to remain aggressive overall. After nearly leading the nation with 2.4 field goal attempts per game last year, UT’s halved that to 1.2 this year, and the Vols’ two missed kicks in 2016 haven’t meant much, since they came in blowouts.
We don’t really know if Jones’ coaching staff is cured of the extreme conservatism that plagued it in 2015, because it hasn’t had a chance to show it. It’s too busy clawing back from behind.
How long can this keep up? Tennessee’s next two games, at No. 8 Texas A&M and vs. No. 1 Alabama, might equal the hardest combo anybody plays all year. If UT pulls off a comeback at Kyle Field or against Nick Saban, this team will deserve a dramatic nickname.
More importantly, if they manage to win one or both of those games, the Vols will be legit title contenders in mid-October for the first time since 2006.
* Other than dumb luck, of course. The Vols lead the nation with 15 fumbles but have recovered 12 of them, including the game-winner against App State, and have recovered an unsustainable 70 percent of opponent fumbles as well, nearly twice their percentage of opponent recoveries last year. Plus, you know, UGA penalties setting up a Hail Mary.
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