Given the state of Tennessee’s football program, the importance of continued improvement is paramount; and at Tennessee, teams will always be judged by how they perform against the common SEC opponents on a year-to-year basis.
While out-of-conference opponents and the alternating team from the Western Division will change annually – especially with the new scheduling format of the SEC – there are currently seven programs that Tennessee faces every year. In looking at the numbers from this season and comparing them with the previous two, Tennessee fans have good reason to be optimistic over the future of Volunteer football for the first time in a long time.
Let me explain.
As it stands, Tennessee plays seven SEC schools every year. While the order of the games may change, the Vols will face Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt every season. This means that taking the scores, margin of victory/defeat and, to some degree, where the games are played should give one an idea of where a program stands and looks to project moving forward.
In 2012 (Dooley’s final season), the average score of these seven games was 39.85 to 30.71 (9.14 margin) in favor of Tennessee’s opponents. Derek Dooley’s squad finished the season with a 1-6 record against these teams with the lone win coming in the season finale against Kentucky – a game in which Derek Dooley was nowhere to be found, as it was actually offensive coordinator/interim head coach Jim Chaney who received the Gatorade bath as the clock struck zero. This team was blown out Florida, Alabama and Vanderbilt, but had close losses to Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri.
Given the offensive talent and expected success of new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri (Whoops!), this season was seen as a resounding failure. Derek Dooley was fired after a loss to Vanderbilt and the Vols failed to reach a bowl game for the second straight season.
Butch Jones took over for Derek Dooley in the 2013 season and the results weren’t much better as far as the overall record. Butch Jones’ team finished last season with a 2-5 record against the common seven, with the added win coming against the 11th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks. Obviously, the added win is a plus, but the average score for both teams actually took a dramatic drop for both the Vols and their opponents.
In 2013, the average score of Tennessee’s games against the common seven was 27.14-17.28 (9.86 margin) in favor of Vol opponents. This means that Tennessee held these teams to 12.71 fewer points than the year before, while also scoring 13.43 fewer points themselves. The margin of defeat for Tennessee actually increased from the previous year, yet they were able to sneak out one additional win against the common seven. It is worth noting that an injury to Justin Worley against Alabama led to then-true-freshman Joshua Dobbs playing the majority of that game and all of the following game against Missouri – the combined scores of those games were 76-13 with the Vols dropping both.
That brings us to this season. Tennessee wrapped up the regular season with a 3-4 record against the common seven with wins over Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – two of which were on the road. Again, the Vols were able to add an additional win; a win that proved the difference in gaining bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2010 season.
But that wasn’t what was most impressive.
The average score of Tennessee’s games against the common seven in 2014 was 28.71 to 26.14 (2.57 margin) in favor of Tennessee. That marks a one point-per-game improvement on the defensive side of the football, while also showing a remarkable 11.43 point-per-game improvement on offense. That is a remarkable +12.43 margin improvement for the Vols in 2014 from the previous season – a two touchdown improvement in a single year.
Now, obviously, there are a myriad of factors that go into the final stats, scores and record for a team on any given season, however, these numbers prove that Tennessee football is improving – on both sides of the ball. While it is probably a bit unrealistic to expect another 12+ ppg improvement in 2015, an additional three to six points or more certainly isn’t out of reach when taking into account that the Vols played this season with one of the youngest rosters in all of college football. That coupled with the fact that the losses on both offense and defense appear to be minimal, and all of those young/inexperienced players are likely to develop and improve in the offseason, point to a very productive season in 2015 for a program that is starving for one.