Have the Vols Improved Compared to Last Year?

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    In Jeremy Pruitt’s first season, Vol fans want to see progress, development, and some improvements from the program’s worst season ever last year. So how are they stacking up to that 2017 team through the first five games of this season?

    I took a look at the stats and compared the Vols’ numbers through five games this year to what they had accumulated through five games last year. And the numbers show that, for the most part, the Vols are showing some improvements this season.

    Last year, the Vols had played a Power Five opponent to start the year (Georgia Tech), faced-off with Florida and Georgia, and played an FCS school (Indiana State) and a low-level FBS program (UMass). This year, they’ve played a very similar schedule. The Vols played a Power Five opponent (West Virginia) to start the year, have played both Florida and Georgia, and have gone against an FCS school (ETSU) and a lower-tier FBS school (UTEP).

    Through five games this season, Tennessee has a worse record (2-3) than they did through the first five games of last year (3-2). But the record doesn’t tell the whole story. The Vols’ played a different schedule last year, and the circumstances around the two teams are very different as well. Georgia Tech was a bad match-up for the Vols to start last season, but it wasn’t nearly as bad of a match-up as West Virginia was for Tennessee this season. Otherwise, the schedules are similar enough to provide a good comparison.

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    Tennessee’s offense hasn’t been great to start this year, but they’ve actually been better across the board than the offense last year.

    The Vols are averaging 1.8 more points per game, 26.6 more yards per game, and nearly half a yard more yards per play this season through five games. Those aren’t massive improvements, but that’s still a sign of progress.

    Last year, the Vols had more passing yards per game (195.8 compared to 182.8 this year), but this year’s team has been much more efficient with their passing. Tennessee only averaged 6.08 yards per attempt and 11.13 yards per completion last year through five games while the Vols are averaging 8.62 yards per attempt and 13.85 yards per completion this season.

    On the ground, Tennessee is just about even from an efficiency standpoint compared to last year. But they’re running the ball quite a bit more this season, and that’s the big difference. The Vols averaged 4.3 yards per carry through five games last year and averaged 137.6 yards per game. This year, Tennessee is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and has averaged 177.2 rushing yards per game.

    Tennessee has one more first down than they did through five games last year, has almost an identical conversion rate on third down, and has one less turnover than last season at this point. Tennessee hasn’t been great in the red zone this year, but they’ve been better than last year for sure. The Vols have scored on 83.3 percent of their red zone possessions this season, but they had only scored on 73.3 percent of their red zone trips through five games last year.

    The biggest improvement aside from the efficiency in the passing game is UT’s yards per play this year. The Vols have run 317 plays so far this season and are averaging 5.68 yards per play. Through five games last year, the Vols had run 321 plays and were only averaging 5.19 yards per play.

    But how is the defense performing compared to this time last year?

    Weirdly enough, the Vols have given up the exact same amount of points through five games this year as they did through five games last season. The defense has shown some improvements, and there’s some promise with the defense through five games this year.

    The total yards per game for the defense this year is down compared to last year. The Vols are allowing 41.2 less yards per game, but they’ve been allowing more yards per play this year. A lot of that has to do with Tennessee playing pass-heavy West Virginia rather than run-heavy Georgia Tech to start the season. The Yellow Jackets did rack up a ton of yards on the ground against UT last year, but West Virginia had more yards per play when they amassed their large quantity of passing yards. Opponents are averaging 5.73 yards per play against the Vols this year compared to 5.6 yards per play through five games last year.

    Speaking of the run defense, it’s shown some great improvements to start this season compared to last year. The Vols are allowing 158 yards per game on the ground this season and 4.7 yards per carry, but last year they were giving up 252.6 rushing yards per game and allowing opponents to average 5.16 yards per carry through five games.

    The Vols’ defense this year has allowed 12 fewer first downs than last year’s defense, and their third down defense has been much better. Last year, the Vols were allowing opponents to convert on 43.84 percent of their third down attempts. This year, UT is giving up a third down conversion just 31.75 percent of the time.

    But there are a few areas where UT’s defense has been worse this year compared to last year.

    The Vols have one fewer takeaway than they did at this point last season, and they have two fewer sacks through five games (though seven of the Vols’ 12 sacks through five games last year came against UMass). Tennessee’s red zone defense wasn’t good last year, but it’s been even worse this season. The Vols had allowed teams to score 94.12 percent of the time they were in the red zone through five games last year, but this year they’ve allowed teams to score 100 percent of the time they’ve made it into the red zone.

    All in all, the Vols are showing improvement across the board this season compared to this time last year. But there’s still plenty of work to be done, and most of the progress is just slight improvement.



    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He can break down football film as effectively as he can a Star Wars film.