Tennessee was one of the worst rushing teams in college football last year despite having one of the more talented running back duos in the SEC. John Kelly flashed tons of potential early on in the year, and Ty Chandler made big plays as well.
Then the Vols’ offensive line began to wear down and suffered loads of attrition. That resulted in Tennessee ending up running for only 117.4 yards per game and averaging just 108.9 yards per game on the ground in SEC games.
This year, however, the Vols got off to a better start on the ground than they finished last season.
Through the first three games of this season, Tennessee was averaging 221.3 rushing yards a game and had eight rushing touchdowns. Those totals came against West Virginia and then lowly ETSU and UTEP, but those were still impressive totals considering how last season went.
Then the SEC schedule started, and the Vols’ rushing numbers have gone in the wrong direction ever since.
Against Florida, the Vols ran for 156 yards and two scores, but it took them 54 carries to get to those totals. Tennessee averaged just 2.9 yards per run against the Gators.
Believe it or not, the Vols’ numbers on the ground have only gotten worse since then.
Tennessee totaled just 66 rushing yards against Georgia and averaged 2.6 yards per carry, managed only 68 yards on the ground against Auburn and averaged 1.9 yards per attempt, and they had just 31 rushing yards against Alabama and averaged precisely one yard per carry.
The Vols haven’t scored a rushing touchdown since the Florida game, and they’ve averaged just 55 rushing yards and only 1.8 yards per carry the last three weeks.
Totals like that aren’t going to cut it in the SEC.
Granted, some of the dip in production for the Vols’ rushing attack has to do with the defenses they’ve been facing. All three of the teams the Vols have faced over the last three weeks are ranked inside the top 40 teams in the FBS in run defense. Georgia comes in at 40th and is allowing just 136.3 rushing yards a game, Auburn is 29th and is giving up only 125.5 yards a game on the ground, and Alabama is currently 19th and is allowing just 113.4 rushing yards per game.
But it doesn’t get a whole lot easier over the next month.
South Carolina, the Vols’ next opponent, has actually been surprisingly mediocre at stopping the run this season. They rank 89th out of 130 FBS teams in total run defense, giving up 179.2 yards a game on the ground. Vanderbilt has been even worse, allowing teams to run for 195.4 yards a game, ranking them 102nd in the FBS.
But aside from those two teams, the run defenses the Vols will be facing the rest of the season will be just as difficult as the last three weeks.
Surprisingly, Charlotte’s run defense this year has been one of the best in college football. They’ve not faced a Power Five team yet, but they’re still only allowing 84.1 yards per game on the ground, good for the sixth-best average in the FBS. Kentucky has the second-best run defense in the SEC and the 17th-best in college football, only giving up an average of 112 yards per game on the ground. And Missouri ranks 35th in the country and is only giving up 131.6 rushing yards per game.
Both Tennessee’s offensive line and running backs have to start playing better if the Vols want to earn six wins this season and make it to a bowl game in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year. Tennessee has allowed the most tackles for loss of any SEC team this season (59), and their 8.4 tackles for loss allowed per game is the sixth-highest average among 130 FBS teams.
That can’t continue if the Vols want to have success down the stretch of this season.
The Vols want to pride themselves on their running prowess and ability to pound the rock on opponents. But so far in conference play this season, they’ve not even come close to succeeding in that venture.