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Why Tennessee’s Offense Is So Efficient In The Red Zone

Tennessee LSU
Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee’s offense went from one of the nation’s worst to one of the nation’s best after Josh Heupel took over a season ago.

That group has found a whole new gear this season. Tennessee ranks second nationally in scoring offense, averaging 47.7 points per game. That’s just 1.1 less points per game than the nation’s leader Ohio State.

A major reason for Tennessee’s success is its red zone efficiency. The Vols have scored on all 31 of their trips inside the red zone this season, joining Ohio State and Clemson as the only two teams in that elite class.

The Vols have done a strong job of not only scoring points in the red zone but finishing drives in the end zone. In Tennessee’s 31 trips to the red zone, just six have ended with three points. In 17 goal-to-goal situations this season, Tennessee’s scored 17 touchdowns. No one else in the country has been that efficient.

Why has Tennessee been so effective and efficient in the red zone this season?

“First, good players,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “Then, the ability to execute, take the plan, adjust to what they’re seeing in the course of the game, decision making by Hendon (Hooker), first and foremost.”

Hooker’s control of the offense is incredibly important to Tennessee’s red zone success. No defense has been able to fluster the super senior quarterback this season and only Pitt has been able to periodically get him out of his rhythm.

Hooker is unflustered by anything he sees in the red zone and is able to keep Tennessee’s offense from making crucial mistakes when the field shrinks.

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While Hooker deserves a ton of credit for Tennessee’s red zone success, the offensive line and running game deserves even more. The Vols have 19 rushing touchdowns and six passing touchdowns in the red zone this season.

“When you’re throwing the football, competitive catches out on the outside,” Heupel said. “The skill guys all being on the same page. The ability to run the football. We’ve continued to be more and more efficient in that. So, you put all of those things together, that’s allowed us to be more efficient with the football in the red zone. … That’s a huge part of the game. There’s a big difference between getting seven and getting three.”

Despite starting four of the same players from last season, Tennessee’s offensive line has taken major steps forward this season. Rotating left tackles Gerald Mincey and Jeremiah Crawford keep Hooker upright and Tennessee’s physicality in the running game is noticeable.

The Vols have lined up and run it at opponents within the five-yard line and in short yardage situations. Two major signs of a strong offensive line.

“Coach Elarbee does a phenomenal job with those guys,” Heupel said. “They continue to grow together. Fundamentally they have gotten better and with communication. We have been fortunate to have guys play at their positions. Our left tackles flip back and forth a little bit, but we have had some consistency.”

Tennessee’s red zone success continued against Alabama, scoring touchdowns on all three trips inside the Crimson Tide’s 20-yard line. While facing the upper echelon teams and talent in the nation, finishing drives with touchdowns instead of field goals is extremely important.

The inability to finish drives with touchdowns kept Missouri from upsetting Georgia and proved crucial in Tennessee’s win over Alabama. The Crimson Tide had to settle for three field goals in the matchup including one inside the 10-yard line.

If Tennessee keeps finishing drives in the end zone, beating them is going to be incredibly challenging for any team.

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