Tennessee's regular season wrapped up on Saturday night in Nashville with a 56-0 obliteration of the Vanderbilt Commodores. I don't know about you, but for me this was probably the fastest college football regular season I can remember. Maybe my sense of time is just totally warped after everything that happened in 2020? Or, maybe time just flies when you're having fun?
I had a whole bunch of fun this season. Coming into the year expectations were high. Tennessee returned their head coach, both coordinators, and starting quarterback. That continuity is generally a recipe for success. I'm not sure anyone expected Tennessee to be this good, though. Record setting offense. Losing streaks snapped on an almost weekly basis. A strong defensive front that ranked near the top of the nation in rushing yards allowed per game. It was a blast being a Tennessee Volunteers fan in 2022.
The loss to South Carolina hurts, there is not question about that. Especially with everything that was riding on that game. But, Vols fans can be extremely proud of the way their team responded in the season finale. Rumors of team chemistry issues were flying around message boards in the last week, and national media pundits questioned Tennessee's desire to even show up for the Vanderbilt game. Tennessee eliminated any doubt about their team chemistry or desire with the way they annihilated their in-state rival.
I think I've mentioned this before, but postgame breakdowns for blowout games like this are almost more difficult to write than breakdowns for competitive games. Tennessee dominated in just about every phase of the game. Even when Vanderbilt executed well on special teams with a fake punt that achieved first down yardage they fumbled the ball right back to the Vols. What is there to talk about when pretty much everything worked for Tennessee and it seemed like Vanderbilt couldn't do anything right? Here are a few of my schematic takeaways from Tennessee's game against Vanderbilt that I think contributed to such a dominant Volunteer performance.
Vanderbilt's Unwillingness To Run Mike Wright
I wrote in the pregame article about Vanderbilt's use of two quarterbacks within their offense. They don't really want to be a two-quarterback team. The SEC Network broadcast reported during the game that head coach Clark Lea even said so himself. But, throughout the season neither quarterback separated from the other in terms of on-field production. Both Mike Wright and AJ Swann have put up extremely similar numbers, with Wright being the better runner and Swann the better passer.
Perhaps the constant rain played a factor in Vanderbilt naming Wright the starting quarterback. Or, maybe they just felt like he would be the best option despite watching Tennessee get torched time and time again in the passing game the week before. Whatever the reason Wright was the guy for the Commodores, and in my opinion they failed to use his greatest strength.
Wright is gifted as a runner. However, he failed to register a single rushing attempt in the first quarter. His first carry came on the first play of the second quarter, but it was actually a designed boot pass. Wright wisely tucked the ball and ran when no receivers were open down field. His first designed run came with about five minutes left in the second quarter with the Commodores already down by 21. Of Wright's seven total rushing attempts in the game five of them appeared to be designed, and at least half of them came with less than two minutes in the ballgame.
With the wet conditions, and with Tennessee playing more of a two-high safety look – something we'll go into more detail on in a second – it's not terribly surprising that Vanderbilt was committed to the ground game. However, it is surprising to me that they were so reliant on primary tailback Ray Davis – 21 attempts on the game – and didn't spread carries around to other weapons. Tennessee didn't have to be as concerned about the quarterback run game, particularly when Wright was out of the game as he was for a majority of the second half. The Volunteer defensive front shut down the running game as they typically have this year, holding the Commodores to only 3.5 yards per attempt.
Vanderbilt Showed Little Interest In Testing The Tennessee Secondary
Surely Vanderbilt watched the South Carolina game and saw how Tennessee was so easily taken advantage of in the secondary. I mean, all of college football saw what happened. Because of that performance I expected Vanderbilt to start AJ Swann at quarterback and try to target both Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan down the field. Obviously that didn't happen.
Sheppard and McGowan were targeted a combined 14 times resulting in nine receptions for 67 total yards per Pro Football Focus. Five of their nine combined receptions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage with the remaining four receptions coming behind the line of scrimmage. McGowan wasn't targeted at all beyond 10 yards down the field despite being one of the faster players on the Vanderbilt roster. Sheppard was targeted four times beyond 10 yards and all four were incomplete.
In fact, everything beyond 10 yards for Vanderbilt quarterbacks fell incomplete regardless of the intended receiver. Swann and Wright were a combined 0/6 when throwing beyond 10 yards. Six attempts in total is a pretty low number and I think there are a few reasons why that may have been the case.
One obvious factor was the weather conditions. Consistent rain and a wet ball aren't exactly conducive to downfield passing. But, that doesn't explain everything. Joe Milton had over twice as many attempts as the Vanderbilt quarterbacks beyond 10 yards playing in the same weather, and Tennessee wasn't even trailing in the game which is generally when teams become more pass-oriented.
I think another factor that played a role is Tennessee's defensive structure. It seemed to me that Tennessee was more willing to show two high safeties, and actually play two high safety coverages, throughout the game than their norm. Here is an example of Tennessee playing Cover-2 against a swing screen on the first drive.
On the second drive, Jeremy Banks undercut an out route and dropped what would have been a pick-6 that was also from Cover-2.
Veteran defensive back Wesley Walker filled in at safety during this game for Trevon Flowers. It's possible that Tennessee felt more comfortable with two high coverages with Walker in the game. Or, maybe the Vols simply wanted to go in a different direction after what happened at South Carolina. I can't really say for certain. It wasn't a drastic shift as Tennessee still played plenty of their typical single high structure. However, it was enough that I took notice. I think Vanderbilt wanted to establish the run seeing Tennessee's two high safeties but weren't able to match up physically in the trenches.
Bad Run Fits Cause Huge Ground Game For Vols
On the opposite side of the ball, Vanderbilt was even more committed to two-high safety shells. The Commodores, as we predicted from the Ole Miss film, mixed three and four down fronts yet stayed fairly static on the back end. It was wise of them to mix fronts, in my opinion, because it prevented Tennessee from knowing their alignments in advance. Any time a defense can get Tennessee to hesitate even for a moment to identify their alignment it prevents the Vols from operating at their fastest possible tempo.
The down side of using a number of different fronts is that now your players need to know how to properly fit the run from all of those different fronts. It's a task that I think the Vanderbilt defense struggled with a great deal against Tennessee. An easy example of this can be found on Jaylen Wright's 50-yard touchdown run.
I'll go into further detail on this play for this week's scheme session video that should come out sometime Tuesday. The short version is that by pulling the guard Tennessee creates five gaps on the play side of the center. The Commodores end up having four defenders to the play side for the five gaps, and one of them – the weak outside linebacker – takes himself out of the play. They would have still needed the free safety to come up and make a tackle even if they fit it perfectly, and that's a tough assignment from depth on an SEC back. This kind of situation occurred a number of times Saturday night, which is why Tennessee went on to rush for over 11 yards per attempt.
Everyone Wants To Know About Joe
Of course, the number one talking point is Joe Milton. It's what everyone wants to know about. Is he the guy? Will he be good enough to lead the Vols next season or should Tennessee look to the portal? Has he developed at all in Coach Heupel's system backing up Hendon Hooker for almost two seasons now?
I know this is an incredibly boring answer, but I really don't think it's possible to give an honest examination of Milton based off this most recent game. Was he inaccurate overall? It would be difficult to argue that he wasn't considering his 11/21 (52.4%) night. Although, again, the rain made conditions challenging. Did he overthrow some deep balls again? Well, yes. But I don't think that was as bad as it may have seemed. Milton was 1/8 on throws beyond 20 yards down field, but one of the incompletions was recorded as a drop. Tennessee knows they aren't going to hit on every single deep ball since they're low percentage throws. Had that ball been caught Milton would have been around 25% on his deeper throws, which isn't that far from what is realistically expected.
We also have to consider the personnel around Joe in this one. Star wide receiver Cedric Tillman was out for this game, and Bru McCoy was dressed but did not record a single snap. Jalin Hyatt did play, but he was positioned at outside receiver which has not been his typical spot throughout this season. On the line Gerald Mincey did not play, and Jeremiah Crawford played limited snaps. Jerome Carvin started the game at left guard, but left about halfway through and was replaced by Ollie Lane. Absolutely no disrespect is intended, but I think it's fair to say that Milton was not surrounded by the same offense that surrounded Hendon Hooker this season.
Finally, Milton wasn't really used in the run game at all. I speculated before the game that, due to Milton's size and this being the final regular season game, Tennessee might not hesitate to use him in the running game. This was definitely an incorrect thought. Milton registered zero rushing attempts for the game. I can't be sure of the reasons why, but it's clear that running Milton was not part of the game plan whatsoever.
I think when we step back and look at all of those factors together it would be inappropriate to make any kind of projection about Milton's future. To be sure, the additional bowl practices, bowl game, and another offseason in the system will be invaluable for getting Milton ready to take over for Hooker in 2023.
That'll do it for this week's postgame breakdown, our last one of the regular season. Thank you all SO much for hanging with me all season. I had a blast doing this full-time and independently this year for the first time ever. It's all because of your support. I've learned a great deal and I'm excited about the future. Thank you all for helping to make my dream of working in football a reality.