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Why Tennessee's entire offensive identity could be a big problem against Virginia Tech

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VT's Bud Foster vs. UT's Mike DeBord. That looks like a mismatch.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach Saturday night’s meeting between Virginia Tech and No. 17 Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway, most of the focus has been on the setting for the game. The spectacle is going to be impressive.

But what is actually going to happen on the field, far from the assembled masses?

That question got a lot more interesting in Week 1 when Tennessee struggled against Appalachian State. The Vols had all sorts of issues blocking up front. The rushing attack, allegedly the strength of the offense, produced only three yards per carry. The passing game was negligible, save for one long pass to Josh Malone.

Tennessee’s poor performance was not a surprise. The Vols may return nine starters on that side, and the recruiting rankings indicate that those starters are high-quality, but Butch Jones' offensive attack is managed by Mike DeBord, a coordinator whose track record is rife with instances of squandering talent. In six years as a coordinator, with Michigan's and Tennessee's resources, his offenses have averaged a national ranking of 39th in points scored, with a peak of 26th in 2006.

DeBord underperformed against Appalachian State in 2007 with an offense that featured Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Mario Manningham, and Jake Long, and then in 2016 with preseason All-SEC Second-Teamers at QB and RB. Now the Vols play a Bud Foster defense.

Foster’s defenses are especially effective against run-heavy offenses that cannot hit big plays.

For as long as he has been in Blacksburg, Foster’s modus operandi has been taking risks to put pressure on offenses, willing to trade the occasional big play for turnovers and three-and-outs. Against an offense that can hit big plays in the passing game, Foster’s defense can get unzipped. Against an offense that is focused on running and is too conservative to take more than a couple shots down the field, this defense can thrive.

Virginia Tech’s games against Ohio State in 2014 and 2015 are perfect examples. In 2014, Foster deployed a bear front to take away Ohio State’s inside running game and force rookie J.T. Barrett to beat the Hokies down the field. Virginia Tech scored an upset. In 2015, Ohio State started Cardale Jones, a superior downfield passer, and rang up 42 points on the road.

Now, which offense seems more like Tennessee’s: the 2014 Buckeyes who used a run-based spread and struggled to throw down the field, or the 2015 Buckeyes who had a collection of NFL-caliber receivers and a quarterback with a nuclear-powered right arm?

DeBord’s play-calling will also present issues. DeBord is a fundamentally conservative coach.

Schooled in Lloyd Carr’s "what can go wrong, and how can we avoid it?" thinking, DeBord will almost certainly look at Foster’s pressure-based style, recall his offensive line’s struggles blocking App State’s defensive front, and think, "If we throw down the field, Dobbs might get hit and fumble."

This is likely what DeBord was thinking in the opener, as evidenced by Vols’ sole touchdown in regulation coming in the fourth quarter, when Tennessee for the first time tried to exploit the physical mismatch between 6'3 former four-star Josh Malone and ASU's 5'10 Clifton Duck. Just listen to Jesse Palmer’s description of the touchdown and cringe.

"That's the first true shot down the field, I think, that Tennessee's taken on the outside, with a six-inch advantage in height," Palmer said.

Tennessee’s running game was poor against Appalachian State. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara combined for 34 carries and 131 yards, an underwhelming 3.9 yards per carry. The running environment against Virginia Tech, which ranked No. 13 last year in preventing successful runs (but did give up a high number of explosive runs), is likely to be bleaker most of the time.

DeBord's background is exclusively in the pro-style world, but he’s trying to coach a run-based spread based around a quarterback who's so far proven more adept with his legs than his arm, ranking No. 78 in passer rating in 2015, plus two star running backs.

Count how many times the bubble screen is open, but Tennessee doesn’t use it. The analogy is to Jim Tressel’s early missteps trying to design an offense to suit Terrelle Pryor’s talents.

So how does DeBord respond?

Does he look at Virginia Tech’s style and conclude that the only way to loosen up the defense is to take deep shots to Malone and others? Or does he worry about what might go wrong with slower-developing pass plays and choose to run Hurd, Kamara, and Dobbs into eight-man fronts, at least as long as the Vol defense is winning its battle against Justin Fuente’s new offense?

It is possible that I am giving too much credit to Foster’s defense. After all, this is a team that finished 40th in Defensive S&P+ last year. However, last year was likely a one-year blip. The Hokies finished in the top 20 in Defensive S&P+ in each of the four previous seasons, including 10th in 2014 and third in 2013. Foster hasn’t forgotten what he knew for the rest of his career, and it’s not like opposing offenses figured something out in 2015.

The more likely explanation is that Virginia Tech had to deploy a younger-than-expected secondary and suffered in the form of giving up a lot of big plays. That secondary is what Tennessee will have to attack and beat on Saturday night.

None of this ensures Tennessee is going to lose.

The Vol defense is talented and well-coached. It’s going up against an offense that is still picking up the pieces after three years of mismanagement by Scot Loeffler, as evidenced by generating only 5.1 yards per play against FCS Liberty. The Hokies’ three primary running backs carried for 89 yards on 28 carries.

Just as Tennessee will struggle to run the ball on Virginia Tech, the reverse will also likely be true unless Hokie quarterback Jerod Evans hits something big.

So what we’ll probably see will be a tight, defensive game. With Tennessee favored by 11, the implication for Brent Musberger and others who like the occasional bet is obvious.

In the bigger picture, the impression we’ll likely be left with is that Tennessee is the more talented team, but Virginia Tech has a clearer idea of what it’s doing.