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Tennessee’s defense has not been the Vols’ problem this year. Could it be Mizzou’s problem?

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Tennessee’s pass defense can test Missouri, but that might not matter if the Vols can’t stop the run.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

When things begin to spiral for a coach, we tend to think of it as an “everything going wrong” situation. That’s not always the case.

Butch Jones’ Vols finished 2016 losing four of seven regular season games, and in three of them, the defense gave up 45 or more points. They legitimately had maybe the best offense in the country in November but still lost to Vanderbilt (45-34) and needed heroic offensive performances to beat Kentucky (49-36) and Missouri (63-37).

The source of this defensive collapse was, in part, injuries: The Vols had a ton of them. (Another source: playing lots of pretty good offenses. They still finished 54th in Def. S&P+ — not elite, but not in the triple digits either.)

Despite losing awesome ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen, and despite dealing with another round of damaging injuries, the Vols have recovered somewhat on the defensive side of the ball. They still aren’t as good as Jones probably expected when he brought defensive coordinator Bob Shoop aboard last year, but needless to say, when you’re 120th in Off. S&P+ and 39th in Def. S&P+, it’s hard to complain too much about the D.

Defensive Line

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida
Darrell Taylor
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

DE

  • Kyle Phillips (6’4, 263, Jr.) — 19.5 tackles, 4.5 TFLs (2 sacks), 10 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 33% success rate allowed)
  • Jonathan Kongbo (6’6, 264, Jr.) — 16.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 5 run stuffs, 42% success rate
  • Matthew Butler (6’4, 274, Fr.)

DT

  • Kendal Vickers (6’3, 295, Sr.) — 24.5 tackles, 5 TFLs (1.5 sacks), 9 run stuffs, 1 FF, 28% success rate
  • Quay Picou (6’1 ,280, Jr.)

DT

  • Shy Tuttle (6’2, 308, Jr.) — 13.0 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 4 run stuffs, 26% success rate
  • Reginald McKenzie Jr. (6’3, 320, Jr.) — 23.0 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (2 sacks), 4 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 29% success rate
  • Alexis Johnson (6’4, 300, Jr.) — 6.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 14% success rate

DE

  • Darrell Taylor (6’4, 254, So.) — 19.5 tackles, 4 TFLs (3 sacks), 3 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 2 FF, 29% success rate
  • Deandre Johnson (6’4, 258, Fr.) — 3.5 tackles, 2 TFLs (1 sack), 2 FF, 0% success rate

The defense has taken on a pretty drastic bend-don’t-break feel this year, which surprises me. That wasn’t necessarily Shoop’s m.o. at Penn State, though obviously you have to do what suits your personnel. The Vols give up only about 3.8 gains of 20-plus yards per game and rank a healthy fourth in my IsoPPP (explosiveness) measure.

They’ll give you five-yard rushes all day, though. Quite a few 10s, too. They rank 16th in rushing IsoPPP but 125th in rushing success rate, 127th in opportunity rate (percent of carries gaining at least five yards), and 115th in power success rate. Gross. Opponents have very much figured out UT’s strengths and weaknesses and are running all day long — 71 percent of the time on standard downs (fifth most in the country) and 42 percent on passing downs (13th).

(Yes, part of those run rates come from opponents knowing how bad the UT offense is and feeling no need to take chances. Again, Missouri fans with memories of 2015 can relate.)

It would be disappointing, then, if Missouri wasn’t able to generate some more traction on the ground, as it has over the last three weeks. There’s quite a bit of pass rushing talent up front with guys like sophomore Darrell Taylor and maybe junior Kyle Phillips. But it appears you can push Tennessee around (or at least move the Vols out of position). Mizzou should try that.

Linebacking Corps

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee
Quart’e Sapp (14) and Micah Abernathy (22)
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

WLB

  • Quart’e Sapp (6’2, 222, So.) — 38.0 tackles, 3 TFL, 9 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 39% success rate
  • Elliott Berry (5’11, 206, Sr.) — 13.0 tackles, 1.5 TFLs (1 sack), 2 run stuffs, 3 PBU, 35% success rate

MLB

  • Colton Jumper (6’2, 229, Sr.) — 33.0 tackles, 9.5 TFLs (4.5 sacks), 8 run stuffs, 40% success rate
  • Will Ignont (6’1, 228, Fr.)

SAM

  • Daniel Bituli (6’3, 240, So.) — 46.5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 5 run stuffs, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 55% success rate
  • Dillon Bates (6’3, 224, Jr.) — 4.0 tackles, 100% success rate
  • Austin Smith (6’3, 236, So.)

Quart’e Sapp was a onetime Mizzou target from Alpharetta (Ga.) before bigger schools came calling. Finally healthy, he’s doing some good things. He’s one of the more disruptive players in this front seven (not necessarily a ton of stops behind the line, but lots near the line), and he’s got a nice partner in Colton Jumper.

(Actually, Jumper’s the star here. I just really like Sapp.)

Daniel Bituli, meanwhile, is a cleaner. As you see from his success rate allowed, a lot of his tackles are in the “prevent successful plays from becoming too successful” vein.

As much of a sieve as Tennessee’s run front has been, this linebacking corps has done yeoman’s work in limiting the gashes.

Secondary

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Tennessee
Emmanuel Moseley
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

CB

  • Justin Martin (6’1, 196, Sr.) — 21.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 82% success rate
  • Shawn Shamburger (6’0, 191, Fr.) — 12.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 71% success rate

CB

  • Emmanuel Moseley (5’11, 184, Sr.) — 23.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 run stuff, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 54% success rate)
  • Shaq Wiggins (5’10, 169, Sr.) — 9.0 tackles, 1 run stuff, 80% success rate
  • Marquill Osborne (5’11, 188, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 0% success rate

SS

  • Nigel Warrior (6’0, 194, So.) — 48.0 tackles, 2 TFLs (1 sack), 5 run stuffs, 3 PBU, 3 FF, 69% success rate
  • Theo Jackson (6’1, 178, Fr.) — 6.0 tackles, 67% success rate

FS

  • Micah Abernathy (6’0, 203, Jr.) — 42.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 3 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 67% success rate
  • Out: Evan Berry (5’11, 205, Sr.)

NK

  • Rashaan Gaulden (6’1, 193, Jr.) — 45.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 8 run stuffs, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 3 FF, 52% success rate
  • Questionable: Baylen Buchanan (5’11, 185, So.)

Here are the defenses Missouri has faced so far, in order of Passing S&P+ ranking, along with Drew Lock’s stats against each.

  • Auburn (third) — 23-for-39, 216 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 117.3 passer rating
  • Georgia (fifth) — 15-for-25, 253 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 189.8 passer rating
  • Florida (48th) — 15-for-20, 228 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 210.3 passer rating
  • South Carolina (60th) — 14-for-32, 245 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 105.9 passer rating
  • Idaho (76th) — 23-for-33, 467 yards, 6 TD, 1 INT, 242.5 passer rating
  • Purdue (96th) — 12-for-28, 133 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 68.5 passer rating
  • Kentucky (100th) — 22-for-42, 355 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 147.0 passer rating
  • UConn (120th) — 31-for-37, 377 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, 214.0 passer rating
  • Missouri State (NR) — 21-for-34, 521 yards, 7 TD, 1 INT, 252.6 passer rating

Let’s categorize that:

  • Lock vs. top 60: 67-for-116 (58%), 942 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT, 145.8 passer rating
  • Lock vs. No. 61+: 109-for-174 (63%), 1,853 yards, 21 TD, 4 INT, 187.3 passer rating

The correlation isn’t incredibly strong here — Missouri’s passing game was mostly bad over the first four games and has been mostly great since — but you’ve still got a difference in performance.

I bring this up simply because Tennessee ranks 24th in Passing S&P+. Opponents have managed only a 117.0 passer rating against the Vols this year, and the only team to succeed even slightly through the air against UT since September was Alabama.

  • UT pass defense, first 4 games: 45-for-79 (57%), 562 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 130.9 passer rating
  • UT pass defense, last 5 games: 64-for-124 (52%), 788 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT, 108.1 passer rating

Lock has aced nearly every test he’s been given since September. He’s made a stray bad throw here and there, but he’s been absolutely tremendous. The Vols will test him. Emmanuel Moseley is a nice, aggressive cornerback, and Shoop uses his safeties (Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy) pretty aggressively. Whereas when UT has the football, there will be a lot of resistible object-vs-movable force type of matchups, this should be a stout battle.

If Lock and Mizzou’s receiving corps win this battle, then I really don’t see how Missouri loses. If the Tigers can pass, they can probably also run, and the Vols likely won’t be able to keep up. But if the Vols can give Lock some September flashbacks and maybe pick off a pass or two (hell, Lock may be due), UT won’t need that many breaks to wreck Mizzou’s senior night for the second time in three years.

Special Teams

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida
Trevor Daniel
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

K

  • Questionable: Brent Cimaglia (6’1, 193, Fr.) — 3-3 PAT, 6-6 FG under 40, 2-7 FG over 40; 10 kickoffs, 40% touchbacks
  • Aaron Medley (6’2, 203, Sr.) — 19-19 PAT, 2-2 FG under 40, 1-2 FG over 40; 30 kickoffs, 70% touchbacks

P

  • Trevor Daniel (6’1, 227, Sr.) — 55 punts, 47.3 average

KR

  • Ty Chandler (5’11, 195, Fr.) — 9 KR, 28.2 average, 1 TD
  • Marquez Callaway (6’2, 199, So.) — 5 KR, 9.8 average

PR

  • Marquez Callaway (6’2, 199, So.) — 11 PR, 10.6 average
  • Emmanuel Moseley (5’11, 184, Sr.)

Average place-kicking, good punts and kickoffs, explosive potential in the return game.

I just described both Tennessee’s and Missouri’s special teams units. The Vols are currently 41st in my Special Teams S&P+, generating about 0.3 points per game of positive contributions. Missouri, meanwhile, is up to 15th (!) and plus-0.7 PPG. Lots of potential for field flippers and big returns.