The Biggest Key to the Vols’ 2019 Turnaround

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    Tennessee began their 2019 football season about as badly as they could’ve.

    The Vols opened up the year with an embarrassing 38-30 loss to Sun Belt opponent Georgia State, and the game in the second half wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated. The Panthers had gone 2-10 in 2018, and Tennessee was more than a three touchdown favorite heading into the game. Georgia State had never beaten a Power Five team in their 10 years of existence as a football program, and the Vols had never lost to a Sun Belt team.

    But the brutality didn’t stop there.

    The following week, the Vols lost to BYU in double-overtime thanks to poor quarterback play and an infamous bust on a pass play late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee finally got into the win column the next week, defeating FCS opponent UT-Chattanooga, but they would get stomped in Gainesville the very next week, falling to Florida 34-3. After a bye week, Tennessee hosted Georgia. Even with a good start to the game, the Bulldogs were too powerful for the Vols in the second half, and UT eventually lost 43-14.

    At 1-4, almost no one was expecting the Vols to turn things around this season. Most were thinking Tennessee could be in store for another historically bad season just like in 2017. But that’s not what happened.

    Against all odds, Tennessee has seemingly righted the ship this season. The Vols never trailed against Mississippi State in Knoxville, and their 20-10 victory over the Bulldogs marked UT’s first SEC win of the season and their first victory over an FBS team in nearly a year. Tennessee would play then-No. 1 Alabama on the road next, and while the Vols’ loss was unsurprising, the fact that UT was a play away from making the contest a one-score game in the fourth quarter was very unexpected.

    Since then, Tennessee hasn’t lost, blowing by South Carolina in the second half to win 41-21, defeating UAB 30-7, and coming back to defeat Kentucky 17-13.

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    So what’s been the difference between the Tennessee team that went 1-4 to start the year and the Vol squad that’s gone 4-1 in their last five games? In short, it’s been the team’s ability to execute the halftime adjustments implemented by the coaching staff.

    Tennessee’s turnaround this season has been sparked by the Vols’ complete 180-degree shift in how they’ve played in the second half. At the beginning of the year, Tennessee’s opponents regularly got the better of the Vols in the second half. But over the last five games, Tennessee has consistently been the better team in the final half of play.

    In the Vols’ first four contests against FBS teams this season, they were outscored 71-19 by their opponents in the second half (excluding the overtime periods against BYU). Tennessee was out-gained on offense — 785 yards to 583 yards — and opponents were averaging 5.9 yards per play against the Vols in the second half while UT managed just 4.6 yards a play in the second half. The Vols converted just 34.6 percent of their third downs in the second half, and their opponents picked up a first down 46.4 percent of the time on third down. Not only that, but Tennessee committed 10 turnovers in the second half over the first four games against FBS teams, and they were only able to force four second half turnovers in that stretch.

    Since the Georgia game, though, the Vols have been executing their second half adjustments much, much better.

    Tennessee’s defense has allowed a mere 21 second half points over the last five games. They’ve shut out two opponents in the second half (South Carolina and Kentucky), and no other offense has been able to score more than a touchdown against UT’s defense in the second half. The Vols gave up two scores to Alabama in the second half, but one of those was a defensive TD by the Tide on the infamous fumble at the goal line by Jarrett Guarantano.

    Over the last five games, Tennessee has outscored their opponents 58-28 in the second half, out-gained them 838 yards to 685 yards, and have a better yard per play average (5.9 YPP vs. 4.6 YPP for opponents). Tennessee has converted 46.9 percent of their third downs in the second half over the last five games, and their opponents have only picked up 32.4 percent of their third downs in the second half.

    Not only that, but UT has done a much better job of taking care of the football in the second half. Tennessee has only turned the ball over four times in the second half over the last five games after coughing up the football 10 times in the second half in their first four games against FBS teams. The Vols haven’t forced many second half turnovers themselves (only one), but they’ve cut down significantly on their own second half giveaways.

    Granted, some of Tennessee’s improvements in the last five games have to do with their opponents, as the Vols have only played one ranked team in their last five contests after playing two top-10 opponents in their first month-plus of play. But the degree to which the Vols have turned things around in the second half of games in the second half of the season has been the catalyst for their winning ways.

    In order for the Vols to continue their resurgence through the end of the season, they’ll have to keep those second half adjustments going against Missouri and Vanderbilt. And considering the Tigers and Commodores have been outscored in the second half by a combined score of 84-21 over their last three games, that is plenty doable for Tennessee.

    The Vols went from scoring a total of 19 points in the second half against FBS teams in their first month-plus of play to averaging 11.6 points a game in the second half of play over their last five games. That’s the biggest reason Tennessee has been able to salvage what looked to be a disastrous 2019 campaign.

    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's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.