Tennessee snapped a four-game losing streak on Saturday with a 24-10 victory over Southern Miss on homecoming in Neyland Stadium. The win brought the Vols’ record to 4-5 on the year, and it was their first win in over a month.
Getting back in the win column was good for a young and injury-plagued Vol roster. But it does nothing to change head coach Butch Jones’ status with the program.
Defeating Southern Miss is an expectation, not a sign of growth at Tennessee. The Vols should never be on anywhere close to an even playing field with a team like the Golden Eagles. Is Southern Miss a good team? Yes, they have some solid play-makers and have played well this season. But they’re a Conference USA team, and Tennessee is in the SEC. Not only that, but the Vols are one of the more storied college football programs in the nation.
A win is nice, but that specific win did nothing to erase the faults of the 2017 season. In fact, it only magnified some of them.
Tennessee struggled with injuries last year, and they’re having those same issues this season. The Vols were down to just six scholarship offensive linemen on Saturday because of injuries, and they lost their starting quarterback and a starting receiver during the game as well.
Throw that on top of season-ending injuries to Chance Hall, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Cortez McDowell, Todd Kelly Jr., Jauan Jennings, and Quinten Dormady, and Tennessee’s depth has been depleted at almost every position this season.
Those injuries have hurt Tennessee in multiple ways, and they’ve especially affected the offense. But that’s not all that’s been damaging to the Vols’ offense; play-calling and execution have held them back too.
The Vols’ offense has been nothing short of abysmal this season. Tennessee ranks last in the SEC in total yards per game, and their offense is 126th out of 130 FBS teams in terms of offensive yards per game. And only seven teams in the country average less yards per play than the Vols’ 4.77 yards per play.
Tennessee’s third down offense ranks 123rd in the country with a 30.4 conversion percentage and is tied for 108th in the nation in touchdown percentage in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on just 50 percent of their red zone trips this year. They’re also 108th in sacks allowed (25) and 111th in passing yards per game.
Not only is Tennessee’s offense getting bogged down and not picking up yards, but they lack any sort of explosiveness as well. The Vols have only 27 plays of 20 or more yards this year. Only five FBS teams have fewer plays of 20 or more yards on offense, and Tennessee has the fewest among all Power Five schools.
Offense is supposed to be the side of the ball that Butch Jones specializes in. But his offense has been mightily inept this year.
This season was supposed to be a “rebuilding year” of sorts on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense. But the offense’s performance this year has gone beyond excusing it away as a rebuilding year.
Tennessee’s offense this season has been so bad that they’ve done things that the 2008 Tennessee offense didn’t do, and that offense was the worst statistical offense in modern Vol history.
Butch Jones’ 2017 Vol squad has twice totaled less than 150 yards of offense. Tennessee totaled 142 yards against Georgia and just 108 yards against Alabama. Both of those are the lowest yardage totals Tennessee has had at least since the new millennium, and it’s likely you would have to stretch back decades further to find something comparable.
The one bright side for the Vols this year has been the defense. Bob Shoop’s second year as defensive coordinator has seen an increase in quality of play. Tennessee’s defense has been far from lights out, but they’ve been much more adequate than they were last season.
But even the uptick in play from the Vols’ defense hasn’t been enough to save the Vols’ offense.
Tennessee’s offense managed just 210 yards against Conference USA opponent Southern Miss on Saturday. Yes, the Vols won, but it wasn’t because of the offense. Tennessee’s defense and special teams set up the offense with good field position on all three touchdown drives they had.
Southern Miss is a good team, but they’re a good Group of Five team. That’s different than a good Power Five team, and Tennessee has had very little luck against the Power Five teams they’ve played this year.
All four of Tennessee’s wins this season have come out of conference, and three of those wins were against teams outside of the Power Five. One win came against an FCS opponent, and two have come against non-Power Five teams.
Tennessee is just 1-5 against Power Five schools this year with their only win coming against Georgia Tech in the season opener. The Vols have been outscored 197-104 in their six games against Power Five foes, and they’ve been out-gained in those six contests 2,711 yards to 1,759 yards.
The Vols have only beaten one truly good, quality opponent this season. They’ve been dominated by two elite teams and beaten by three average to below average teams. A win on Saturday doesn’t change any of that, and it doesn’t affect Butch Jones’ future at Tennessee.
Jones is still on the hot seat, and he’s still likely on his way out as the Vols’ head coach. A win only delays the inevitable at this point.