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The numbers don’t lie. Tennessee was a much better team in 2022

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Tennessee went 8-4 three years after Jeremy Pruitt’s last UT team went 3-7, averaged a paltry 21.5 points per game and had six outings with less than 20 points.

On the surface, that would constitute significant improvement.

But Josh Heupel nixed that narrative by raising expectations.

In Year Two, Heupel went 11-2, beat Florida, LSU and Alabama in consecutive games, and clobbered Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

So 8-4 was viewed by some as a significant drop-off.

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No doubt, Tennessee was a much better team in 2022.

But what were the key factors in Tennessee going from a College Football Playoff contender to a borderline Top 25 team?

Loss of personnel is an obvious answer. But we’re going to take players out of the equation and focus strictly on numbers.

Here are five statistics that can be traced to Tennessee taking a dip this season.

Red-zone blues

Tennessee led the nation in red-zone touchdown percentage last year, finding the end zone on 53 of 67 trips inside the 20-yard line (79%).

The Vols ranked among the worst teams in the nation in that category this season, converting on just 49% (24 of 49).

That could be attributed to Joe Milton not being as good of a runner as Hendon Hooker or an offensive line not as good at run blocking or bland play calling – or all of the above.

Points on the board

Tennessee led the nation in scoring last year at 46.1 points per game.

Tennessee ranked in the middle of the SEC this year in scoring at 31.5 points per game.

Last year, the Vols had one game in which it didn’t score at least 31 points and six games in which it scored at least 50 points.

This season, UT scored fewer than 21 points five times and didn’t crack the 50-point mark but once.

No downfield threat

Tennessee averaged only 7.7 pass yards per attempt. That is the lowest of a Heupel offense since he was hired as offensive coordinator at Missouri in 2015.  The previous low was 7.9 at Missouri in Heupel’s first season. The next six years, Heupel’s up-tempo attack averaged 8.5 pass yards per attempt, with the high-water mark of 10.0 in 2022.

The slide in pass yards per attempt is a surprise considering Milton has a better arm than Hooker and was expected to stretch the field with more long throws than did Hooker. It didn’t help that Milton had about four well-thrown deep balls dropped.  But he was also inaccurate on a number of throws 30+ yards downfield.

The long ball

Tennessee completed only 18 passes of at least 30 yards, compared to 40 last season, and 30 the year before.

Central Florida had 42 in Heupel’s second year as head coach of the Knights.

In the previous seven years, a Heupel offense had at least 25 completions of 30 or more yards, averaging 32 per season. UT’s inability to connect on the long ball also led to UT averaging only 250.9 pass yards per game – the lowest of Heupel’s past eight years. UT averaged 326.1 pass yards per game last year.

UT also had only 21 touchdown passes compared to 38 last year and 33 the year before.

Trickle down effect

Tennessee averaged 76 fewer passing yards per game in 2023 than last year.

At one point, you might have found that acceptable since the Vols were a better running team. But the stats show that UT has averaged only 3.1 more rush yards per game this year. And that doesn’t come close to making up the difference in the pass yards.

UT averaged 326.1 pass yards per game last year, 250.1 so far this year.

That has also impacted the total offense: 525.5 last year, 453.5 so far this year.

That’s a lot of yards per game, a lot of first downs per game and, thus, a lot of points per game.

Those are five statistical reasons the Vols went from No. 6 in last year’s final AP poll to unranked heading into the bowl season – behind the likes of Liberty, Tulane, Toledo, SMU and James Madison.

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