The Tennessee Volunteers have finished the last of their three-game non-conference stretch to open up their season. After games against Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, and Ohio, the Vols begin their SEC slate of games with only a non-conference game against Tennessee Tech to interrupt it.
Next up: The Florida Gators.
Many considered Tennessee’s first three games of their 2016 season to be “tune-up games” to prepare the Vols for their conference schedule. Now that Tennessee has played and won all three of those games, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned from the first three games of the season.
The Offensive Line Will Be a Problem
This is the most obvious takeaway from the Vols’ first three games of the season. Tennessee hasn’t faced anything close to the caliber of talent they’ll see from SEC front sevens so far, but the Vols’ offensive line has been as bad as they were when they had freshmen and sophomores making starts at almost every position in 2014.
Through three games, Tennessee’s offensive line has allowed seven sacks and 20 tackles for loss. That’s to the likes of Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, and Ohio. There would’ve been more sacks if not for the fact that quarterback Josh Dobbs is a skilled escape artist and can erase some of the mistakes the offensive line makes.
Tennessee’s offensive line has been porous to start the season. And they haven’t even played an SEC team yet. Unless something drastic changes, the offense is in for a world of hurt against Florida this Saturday.
Tennessee Might be the Luckiest Team Around
Through three games, the Vols have had an incredible amount of fumbles. What’s even more incredible, however, is how few of them they’ve lost.
The Vols have fumbled the ball 11 times in three games. But aside from Cam Sutton’s fumbled punt in the opener against Appalachian State, Tennessee has yet to lose a fumble. On offense or special teams, the Vols have recovered 10 of the 11 fumbles they have had. Not only that, but they’ve also recovered five of the seven fumbles their opponents have lost as well.
That means that on the season, the Vols have recovered 15 of a total 18 fumbles in the three games they’ve played.
You have to think that kind of luck will eventually balance itself out, but so far it’s benefited the Vols big time. Good teams get big breaks, and Butch Jones always says a good team “creates its own luck.” Vol fans better hope that stays true moving forward.
The Defense Will Bend, but Will It Break?
So far, Bob Shoop’s defense hasn’t been quite as dominating as Vol fans had hoped. But he’s been far from a disappointment thus far, and the stats prove just that.
The Vols have allowed the fifth-fewest yards per game in the SEC after three games, giving up 336.7 yards a contest. Teams have been able to find running lanes, gaining an average of 152.7 rushing yards a game against the Vols. But Tennessee’s pass defense has been stout, allowing a mere 184 pass yards to opponents.
The defense may allow some yards here or there, but they’ve been stingy in the category that matters most: Points allowed.
In three games, the Vols are only allowing 18.7 points per game. They have only given up more than 20 points once in three games, and teams have only scored four touchdowns in nine red zone possessions so far. Tennessee has also been strong on third down defense, only allowing teams to convert on 32.6 percent of their third downs.
The Vols haven’t piled up the sacks or tackles for loss. But they’ve been disruptive in other ways and have stopped teams from scoring touchdowns. That goes a long, long way towards earning a victory.
Malone is the Go-To Guy
One of the biggest questions about Tennessee’s wide receiving corps this offseason was if a true go-to target would emerge. It would appear one finally has, and in a big way.
Junior receiver Josh Malone has been the receiver Josh Dobbs has turned to early this season when the offense needs a big play. Through three games, Malone leads the team in receptions (9), yards (196), and touchdowns (4). Malone has had at least one 20-yard or longer catch in all three games this season, and all of his big receptions have gone for scores. He hauled in a 67-yard touchdown against Appalachian State, a 38-yard score against Virginia Tech, and two 20-yard touchdown grabs against Ohio.
Right now, Malone is on pace to catch 36 passes for 784 yards and 16 touchdowns. It’s not likely he’ll reach those numbers or that they’ll be skewed differently as the season goes on, but Malone has finally emerged as a legitimate deep threat for the Vols.