If you just sit down and look at Tennessee’s offensive numbers through the first six games of this season, you likely won’t be very impressed. The Vols are last in the SEC in yards per game, last in tackles for loss allowed per game, 12th in points per game, and are ninth in third down conversion percentage.
But according to one college football analyst, the Vols’ offense this season has actually been better than the numbers would suggest at first glance.
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Dave Bartoo is big into numbers, and he’s the founder of Matrix Analytical Solutions. He observes college football through the lens of analytics and statistics, and he appeared on The Swain Event on Thursday morning to discuss Tennessee’s upcoming game against Alabama and other storylines around college football. According to Bartoo’s analytical model, UT’s offense has actually performed really well considering the types of defenses they’ve faced this season.
“Tennessee’s offense and defense are both 93rd in scoring efficiency,” Bartoo said on The Swain Event. “Here’s the thing about Tennessee’s offense, though: They’ve faced the second-toughest defensive profile in college football this year. Your offensive scoring efficiency is 27 percent higher than the average defense you’re facing. So while the offense’s numbers aren’t good, they are well above the average defense they’re facing because the average defense the Vols have faced is brutal.”
When you go back and look at the basic numbers even outside of Bartoo’s model, he’s right: The Vols have faced an extremely difficult group of defenses to start this season.
ETSU and UTEP notwithstanding, Tennessee’s first half of the season has seen them go up against some stout defenses. All four of the Power Five teams the Vols have faced this season are inside the top 30 teams in the FBS in points per game allowed, and only West Virginia among that group ranks outside the top 30 teams in the FBS in yards allowed per game.
Simply put, Tennessee has faced a collection of tough defensive teams to start this year. But as Bartoo said, the Vols’ offense has actually performed better against those defenses than most other offenses have.
According to Bartoo, if you adjust the Vols’ offensive numbers based on where they would rank compared to how they’ve played “above the defenses they’re facing,” they would be 33rd in his statistical model in scoring efficiency.
“That’s one spot above Michigan. That’s two spots above Virginia Tech. It’s right below Wisconsin and Washington,” Bartoo added. “So when I look at the offense, if you look at it in a vacuum on paper you go ‘the offense has been terrible.’ But you gotta look at what they’ve been going up against.
“Offensively, they’re actually performing above the defense way better than most of college football.”
That’s not much solace for Vol fans wanting to see better production out of Tennessee’s offense, but it does help explain part of the reason why the Vols have had some of the struggles they’ve had to start this year. Even though they went up against yet another stout defense this past weekend in Auburn, Tennessee was able to total nearly 400 yards of offense and scored 23 offensive points against a Tigers’ defense that was allowing just 323.5 yards per game and 14.3 points per game before UT played them.
The Vols have already faced the second-toughest defensive profile in college football so far this year, and it doesn’t get any easier this weekend. Alabama is third in the SEC in points allowed per game (15.3), fourth in yards allowed per game (315), and has forced the second-most turnovers in the SEC this season (16).
Bartoo says the Vols’ offense has been underappreciated to start this season, but don’t expect them to be able to show off that offense this weekend.
“I think your offense at Tennessee is underrated, underappreciated because of the defenses they’ve faced this year,” Bartoo explained. “I think the offense is still going to struggle to score points, but it’s a matter of the defenses they’re facing, and again this weekend they face another top 20 defense.”
Things do get a little easier for the Vols after Alabama, as three of the four SEC teams Tennessee will face after the Tide are in the bottom half of the conference in both points allowed per game and yards allowed per game (Kentucky ranks in the top half of both categories right now). So November could prove to be quite a bit nicer than the beginning of the season for the Vols.
Numbers don’t often lie, but in Tennessee’s case, the numbers might not tell the whole story about the Vols’ offense. The Vols won’t get a break this weekend, but maybe they can prove Bartoo right in the final month of the season.