This is typically the time of the season in which teams are playing their best. Not Tennessee.
The Vols struggled in two key areas against Missouri in a 36-7, one-sided, loss to the Tigers: third-down conversions allowed and penalties. Both can undermine the best teams and could altogether destroy Tennessee’s chances against Georgia on Saturday.
The Vols allowed Missouri to convert on 11 of 17 third-down attempts on Saturday and were called for nine penalties, which cost the Vols 95 yards. Now, there are conspiracy theorists who would have you believe that the latter is some sort of cosmic force working against the Vols – or that the SEC just hates Tennessee, especially over the last month or so. If that’s the case, which Off The Hook Sports hasn’t been able to prove, it shows up statistically. Whatever the reason, the Vols are just bad when it comes to drawing little yellow flags.
Tennessee is the worst team in the SEC in penalties called per game and penalty yardage, which is 8.5 penalties per contest and 72.5 yards per game. The Vols are last in the SEC in both of those categories and 128th in the nation in penalty yardage given up per game and 130th in the country in penalties called per game. Just so you know, there are only 133 FBS teams, so the Vols are battling for the bottom of the barrel. If unknown forces in striped uniforms are working against the Vols, then they’re doing a good job. It’s too bad Tennessee can’t lay all its third-down issues at the feet of the officials.
The Vols aren’t nearly as bad on third downs as they are at drawing penalty flags, but they sure aren’t great with possessions on the line. Tennessee is seventh in the SEC in third-down conversions allowed. The Vols’ have allowed opponents to convert 37-percent of their third downs this season.
The two aspects that the Vols are struggling in have more of an impact than just tangible yards. Being called for a penalty or giving up a key third-down conversion can have a psychological affect as it stymies drives and keeps the Vols’ offense on the sideline and out of synch. Tennessee may not be as good offensively as they were last year. However, no offense can score if its stuck on the sideline.
The two shortcomings are a sign that the Vols haven’t been well coached this season or that they haven’t responded to coaching effectively. Whichever is the case, Tennessee had better cure those ills before No. 2 Georgia enters Neyland Stadium.
Are Tennessee’s mistakes caused by effort or simple discipline? Either would be an issue. However, a lack of effort would be especially disturbing. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel seemed to hint as much after the Missouri game, but backtracked during his weekly press conference on Monday.
“Going back and watching it, a lot of them did continue to play hard,” Heupel said. “I just didn’t think we played very smart at the end of it. We’re disappointed in that.”
The Vols are facing an opponent this week that is far better than Missouri. If the Vols don’t shore up their penalty and third-down issues, they won’t just lose to Georgia, they’ll get embarrassed – again.