Vols Need to Switch It Up on First Down

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    Tennessee has been nothing if not predictable on offense on first down plays this season. It feels like every time the Vols have the ball on first down, they call a running play. And the numbers back up that notion.

    So far this season, the Vols have run 144 plays on first down. Of those 144 plays, 105 of them have been runs while only 39 have been pass attempts. That means Tennessee has run the ball on 72.9 percent of their first down plays this season. So almost three out of every four first down plays have been runs for the Vols this season so far.

    Running the ball on first down isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the Vols have had some pretty good success when they’ve run the ball on first down, averaging 4.83 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns on first down runs. Both those totals are the best for UT’s offense this year on any specific down.

    But Tennessee is becoming far too predictable on first down, and that kind of success won’t last long if they keep up their current pace. In fact, it already has started a downward turn since the Vols opened up SEC play. Aside from the 17-yard run from Ty Chandler on the first play of the game for UT against Georgia, Tennessee often struggled on first down runs against the Bulldogs.

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    Tennessee’s run/pass tendency on first down is skewed way too far in one direction. And it definitely shows when you compare it to last year and some other teams in the SEC.

    Last season, the Vols ran the ball 64.1 percent of the time on first downs, calling up a run play on 205 of their 320 first down plays last season. Of course, Tennessee shouldn’t be trying to emulate last season’s abysmal offense, but that’s still a good comparison point when showing just how much more often the Vols have been running on first down this season.

    But how do the Vols compare to some of the other teams in the SEC who like to run the ball as much as Tennessee?

    The Vols are fourth in the SEC in rushing attempts per game, averaging 42.2 carries per game. Only Missouri, Texas A&M, and LSU average more rushing attempts per game this season. So how do those offenses stack up when comparing their run/pass tendencies on first down?

    Somewhat surprisingly, Missouri has been a potent running team this year. The Tigers are known for their passing attack, but they’ve been dangerous on the ground as well. But they’ve been a fairly balanced offense so far. This season, they’ve called a run play on 59.8 percent of their first down plays. As a whole, the Tigers have actually been much more efficient on second down both running and passing the ball.

    Texas A&M is a little less balanced than Missouri, but they’re still more evenly split than Tennessee. The Aggies are running the ball on 62.2 percent of their first down plays this season. LSU has almost the exact same split as Texas A&M, as they’ve run the ball on 62.8 percent of their first down plays this year so far.

    In fact, Tennessee’s 39 pass attempts on first down this season are the fewest in the SEC, and it’s not even close. Every other school in the conference has attempted at least 50 or more passes on first down this season. The Vols, however, have not.

    Tennessee has had success on first down when they’ve passed it, completing 71.8 percent of their passes for 407 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Almost half of their passing yards this season (44.5 percent) have come on their first down completions.

    The Vols haven’t had major struggles passing the ball on first down this season, and they’re going to get in trouble if they don’t change their course moving forward. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton needs to adjust this part of Tennessee’s offense or the Vols are going to far too easy to defend.