Tennessee’s third down efficiency on both sides of the ball has troubled the Volunteers here during their late-season two-game slide.
In Tennessee’s three SEC wins this season against South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Kentucky, the Vols have either won the third-down battle or lost by a hair. Tennessee converted 7-of-15 against South Carolina while only allowing 2-of-15 conversions from the Gamecocks’ offense. The Vols offense similarly hit the 7-of-15 mark on third down conversions against Texas A&M while only allowing the Aggies success on five of their 15 attempts. Tennessee and Kentucky both converted five third downs in their game with the Vols doing so in 12 attempts and the Wildcats hitting that number in 11 attempts.
All in all, the importance of staying on the field on offense and getting off the field on defense has become evident this season, which is why the last two weeks have been so troubling for Tennessee.
Tennessee’s defense allowed 20-of-30 third down conversations against Missouri and Georgia with the Tigers gaining 11-of-17 third downs and the Bulldogs completing nine of their 13 attempts. Tennessee, meanwhile, has only converted seven third downs out of 24 total attempts over the two-game stretch.
“Third downs, 2 of 11, you’re not gonna win,” head coach Josh Heupel said after the Georgia game. “You get their conversion rate (9 of 13), that’s how you win. So (it’s) disappointing. We gotta regroup. We’re banged up. You guys saw that before the game, during the game. This game doesn’t care about it. We gotta come ready to play next Saturday.”
This isn’t to say that everything has been Tennessee’s faltering on both sides of the ball. Playing Georgia and Missouri, two teams that are in the Top 10 of both the AP Poll and College Football Playoff poll, is going to be a tall task as both teams boast impressive players at the end of the season. But that’s also not to downplay and say that Tennessee’s internal struggles in that department haven’t been a concern.
“A lot of it was in the pass game,” Heupel said about Tennessee’s defensive third-down struggles after the Georgia game. “At the end of the day, I said going into it, there’s gonna be one-on-one situations. They made plays in those one-on-one situations. And that can be protection, that can be giving the quarterback time. It can be making the plays out on the perimeter. And end of the day, we didn’t do those things, you know what I mean? Those plays … give you the ability (to convert).”
It’s the timing of the third downs that have hurt Tennessee, too.
Tennessee went three-and-out on their first drive in the first half and the second half against Missouri. The Vols couldn’t capitalize on their 75-yard opening-play touchdown from Jaylen Wright against Georgia by following that up with back-to-back three and outs.
“A little bit different structure (from Georgia’s defense) not every down,” Heupel said about Tennessee’s offensive struggles against Georgia on Saturday. ‘Anticipate some of it, their personnel and us managing and being efficient in what we’re doing. And then the third downs, a lot of that was man-to-man, being able to protect it, being able to get it off, being able to go win in a one-on-one situation. We do some things to try to give them some space to create some for them to win. And they gotta be good enough to go make plays.”
AP No. 25 Tennessee will host Vanderbilt this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium.