(Part two of a two-part series on Tennessee football. Part two focuses on defense.)
By Jimmy Hyams
The SEC East hasn’t won the SEC championship since 2008.
That might explain why the East has had only 14 teams record at least a 4-4 conference record over the past four seasons.
How did those 14 teams stack up defensively against SEC competition?
Thanks to the research of John Pennington with the Sports Source, we will tell you.
We will also tell you how Tennessee last season compared to those numbers and if the Vols can reach those stat lines this season.
Those 14 SEC East teams allowed 24.3 points per game in league play.
Tennessee surrendered 34.8 points per game in going 0-8 in the SEC last year.
The defenseless Vols gave up at least 40 points to four SEC teams (Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Vanderbilt). They held just one team to fewer than 26 points (South Carolina).
Tennessee’s inept offense didn’t help matters, registering more than its share of three-and-outs and often putting the defense in harm’s way regarding field position.
Still, the injury plagued defense of coordinator Bob Shoop was, for the most part, awful.
It couldn’t hold late leads against Florida and Kentucky, gave up 92 combined points to Missouri and Vanderbilt and was humiliated on the ground by a non-SEC team, Georgia Tech, which rushed for an ungawdly 535 yards.
Tennessee’s defense has a chance to be much improved, in part because it should be better coached. And if it can stay relatively injury free, I can see the defense improving by a touchdown per game. And I can see the defense holding five teams (Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt) under last year’s point total.
Holding SEC opponents to less than 30 points per game is a reasonable goal, but it falls short of what .500 or better East teams have done since 2014.
Those 14 teams allowed 162.7 rushing yards per game.
Tennessee gave up a whopping 262.0 last year in the SEC, and that doesn’t count the Georgia Tech avalanche.
Four SEC teams rushed for more than 270 yards last year (Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri). Three others rushed for at least 190 (South Carolina, LSU, Vanderbilt).
Only Florida was held to less than 170 and the Gators got 168.
Tennessee is switching to a 3-4 front but don’t be misled. The Vols could run as much 4-3 as 3-4 and, frankly, I don’t think UT has the personnel to run a 3-4 more than 75 percent of the time.
If nose tackle Shy Tuttle and linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli and safety Todd Kelly Jr. can stay healthy. And if Jonathan Kongbo and Nigel Warrior play up to their ability. And if UT can find some cornerbacks who can tackle, the run defense will be significantly better.
I would expect Georgia, Alabama and Auburn to exceed 200 rushing yards, and perhaps Missouri, which has averaged over 400 rushing yards in the last two games against UT.
UT must find a way to contain the ground games of Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Trimming the run defense to 200 yards per game is doable. That’s 62 yards per game. Anything better would be a surprise.
The 14 East times that didn’t have a losing record the last four years allowed 207.4 passing yards per game.
Tennessee allowed 178.6 last year.
Talk about misleading stats. UT’s secondary wasn’t that good. It’s run defense was so poor, opponents didn’t have to pass.
For example, Georgia and Kentucky completed just seven passes. And opponents averaged 19.25 rushing first downs per game.
Moreover, UT’s secondary collected only five interceptions in 12 games.
Since I think UT’s run defense will again be susceptible and opponents won’t have to attempt 30 passes per game, I think UT’s pass defense will allow slightly more than 200 passing yards per game to SEC teams.
Bottom line: UT’s defense isn’t ready to play .500 ball in the SEC. Unless a bunch of “ifs’’ become reality.
My projection: UT goes 3-5 in SEC play.