"Whoever is in there, it just boils down to consistency. We’ll do things for three plays in a row and then all of a sudden there’s a miss." That's how Tennessee head coach Butch Jones described his Vols' offensive line three games into 2016.
The stats back him up. After wins over Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, and Ohio, the Vols rank a mediocre 58th in rushing success rate, but they are 32nd in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least 5 yards) and 42nd in stuff rate (percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line). Those aren't great, considering the forthcoming upgrade in competition, but you can't get numbers even that high if you're suffering too many breakdowns.
With the likely return of right tackle Chance Hall from a knee injury that has sidelined him since August, perhaps No. 15 Tennessee’s line will be able to open some holes for Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara on Saturday against No. 19 Florida, allowing the Vols to dictate field position and avoid putting quarterback Josh Dobbs in too many awkward down-and-distance combinations.
1. If they can't, it is difficult to figure out how Tennessee will move the ball. Because the Vols probably aren't going to be able to pass.
On Kentucky's first snap against Florida on Sept. 10, the Gators blitzed, and Alex Anzalone arrived untouched for a 6-yard sack. If this were movie foreshadowing, it would be considered a little bit obvious.
Barker attempted 14 passes against Florida. He completed two to his teammates and three to Gator defenders, and he was sacked four times. These 14 attempts netted a loss of 11 yards. Backup Stephen Johnson completed a 45-yard pass to Jeff Badet; his other three attempts resulted in two incompletions and a sack-and-strip lost fumble.
UMass, Kentucky, and North Texas do not have the most fearsome passing games, but if you filter out garbage time, these three managed the following stat line on standard downs against Florida: 8-of-16 passing, 85 yards, two interceptions, five sacks. Again, on standard downs — first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, when the defense is supposed to fear both run and pass — Florida opponents have gained 50 yards in 21 pass attempts.
On 28 passing-downs pass attempts, meanwhile, opponents have lost 6 yards.
2. Somehow, Florida managed to lose two awesome cover men (corners Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole) and two excellent pass rushers (tackle Jonathan Bullard and rush end Alex McCalister) and get nastier in pass defense.
Thus far, Florida is first in passing success rate allowed and second in passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays). Five Gators already have at least two sacks, and four have defensed at least two passes. Freshman end Jabari Zuniga has four sacks among his 8.5 tackles. Defensive backs Chauncey Gardner and Quincy Wilson have a pick and four breakups. Star corner Jalen Tabor has been almost completely untested.
Pitting this defense against these opponents has been cruel. Will it be any different against Tennessee?
3. Dobbs is in his fourth year as at least a part-time starter for Tennessee, but Saturday will be only his second game against Florida.
In his first, he completed 10 of 17 passes, but the completions gained only 83 yards, and three sacks lost 22.
Dobbs was a promising 4-for-5 for 50 in the fourth quarter, but that also means he was 6-for-12 for 33 in the first three. This season, he's averaging a paltry 5.3 yards per pass attempt with a poor sack rate, and he's completed two passes of 30-plus yards — only nine FBS teams have completed fewer.
This sport produces surprises all the time, but it would be downright shocking to see Dobbs throwing all over Florida.
That will put significant pressure on the Vols’ run game to generate yardage with the fewest possible glitches.
4. It could happen, and Dobbs is obviously the key.
While Hurd and Kamara had a nothing day against the Gators last year — 33 carries, 118 yards (just 3.6 per carry) — Dobbs' legs were impressive. Ignoring sacks, he rushed 15 times for 158 yards and caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from receiver Jauan Jennings.
After carrying eight times for 15 yards in the 2016 opener against an Appalachian State defense that was controlling the line, Dobbs rushed 23 times for 201 yards against Virginia Tech and Ohio. Coordinator Mike Debord didn't want to run him that much, and with good reason — there is nothing proven behind Dobbs on the depth chart — but he's found he doesn't have much of a choice.
Nothing else is producing big plays, and Hurd is gaining at least 5 yards on under 40 percent of his carries. Without the ability to go deep — Dobbs isn’t getting the protection he needs, and when he does, throwing (and catching) catchable deep balls has been an issue — the Vols have had to lean on efficiency. And only Dobbs’ legs have been efficient.
During this tenuous 3-0 start, just about the only things the Vols have done well on offense are running with Dobbs and recovering fumbles. The latter is not sustainable. We'll find out about the former.
5. At the current rate, by the way, the fumbles will soon become deadly for the Vols.
Projected over 13 games, Tennessee is on pace for 48 fumbles. Only two teams had more than 31 last season, and both (Georgia Tech and Army) were option attacks. The Vols have been as sloppy with the ball as you can possibly be, but they have lucked out in recovering 10 of their 11 fumbles, along with five of their opponents' seven. Overall, that's an 83 percent fumble recovery rate. If the Vols had only recovered 9-of-18 fumbles (since 50 percent is obviously going to be the national average) instead of 15, they might be 0-3 or 1-2 right now.
Dobbs has been responsible for four of those 11 fumbles. That is far too sloppy. But at this point, you just have to keep running him and hope that your fumbles luck continues.
6. Florida still has to score, too, mind you.
That could be easier than expected, thanks to a rough run of Tennessee injuries: linemen Danny O’Brien and LaTroy Lewis are listed as questionable, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is probably out, star DB Cameron Sutton is out indefinitely, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has been limited with a shoulder injury.
Still, Florida isn’t healthy. Starting quarterback Luke Del Rio is out, as is guard Tyler Jordan, and big-play receiver Antonio Callaway is questionable. The Gators might be forced to lean on a run game that hasn’t produced many big plays, and new quarterback Austin Appleby might have to keep his ambitions in check and dump to slot receiver Brandon Powell and tight end DeAndre Goolsby quite a bit.
7. This has the makings of a punting-and-field position battle, which could slightly favor Florida thanks to punter Johnny Townsend and his 50-yard average.
But disaster could favor the Gators even more. Tennessee is the team more likely to fumble and more likely to give up a huge sack.
Disappointing wins are better than encouraging losses, and Jones’ Volunteers still have every conceivable goal on the table. But they’ve skated by with luck and the bare minimum of offensive proficiency, and if they want to live up to preseason hype, their improvement must begin now.