At first glance, Tennessee’s 9-4 record in 2015 looks like an impressive step forward and a testament to just how far coach Butch Jones brought the Volunteers program in three seasons.
But a failure to finish games left a bitter taste in the mouths of Vols fans last season. It was the difference between that record and what could have been an 11-1 season—or perhaps even better.
The Vols blew fourth-quarter, double-digit leads on national stages in dramatic fashion against Oklahoma and Florida, dropping the Sooners game at Neyland Stadium in overtime and then totally collapsing against the rival Gators to lose their 11th consecutive game in the series.
Then, UT choked away a 14-0 lead to lose 24-20 to Arkansas. Against another hated rival—eventual national champion Alabama—Tennessee held a 14-13 lead in Tuscaloosa with about 2:30 remaining before losing 19-14.
Hiding from the criticism isn’t an option for Jones. The blown opportunities for big victories was a popular topic at this week’s SEC media days, and it’s a big reason some critics fear the Vols won’t live up to expectations.
Jones said on the SEC Network telecast of this week’s media days in Hoover, Alabama, that he’s tried to use the tough times as a teaching tool.
You always have to learn from the previous experiences and past experiences. It’s something we spoke about ever since we started that offseason program and just what does it take in pointing defining moments out in the game. But when we talk about leadership, we always talk about it’s better to be a player-coached team than a coach-coached team.
Players must make crucial plays at pivotal moments, but Jones must also make better decisions with games on the line than he did a season ago.
There’s normally a learning curve for young head football coaches once they enter the bright lights of important games in marquee conferences, but Jones didn’t make the grade last year. Were there any lessons learned? What do the Vols need to do to finish games and be a championship program in 2016?
Here are some things the Vols must do to close out games this season.
Rip off the restrictor plates
Plenty of questions have been raised in recent months about quarterback Joshua Dobbs‘ ability to run a more wide-open offense that can balance UT’s superb running attack—and rightfully so.
It’s also fair to question how much of it is Dobbs‘ fault. Sure, he deserves some blame for his lack of sharpness, but a beat-up, under-performing receiving corps hasn’t done him any favors, either.
First-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord was far too conservative in late-game situations, especially early in the year, so he needs part of that blame, too. Overall, DeBord‘s first season in Knoxville was solid, but the Vols need to loosen up, trust and diversify the offense.
Ahead 17-3 and on Oklahoma’s 29-yard line following an interception on the penultimate play of the third quarter, the Vols ran seven plays (five running) for negative-10 yards as the Sooners stormed back to force the game into overtime.
Leading 27-21 against Florida with 4:09 remaining, the Vols ran three times for no yards and burned just 50 seconds off the clock before punting to a Gators team that would take the lead. With 1:26 left and down a point, UT ran just five plays to set up a missed 55-yard field goal.
In both instances, they played not to lose rather than to win.
In neither case did DeBord show a lot of confidence in his playmakers. As the season progressed, he did with the Vols down big against Georgia, and they responded. As a result, much of the second half of the season saw a rejuvenated Tennessee offense.
Dobbs, for his part, certainly sounded confident at SEC media days in his abilities to diversify his offensive portfolio, according to GoVols247’s Wes Rucker:
I know I can win games with my arm. I’ve won games with my arm in the past. With your arms or your legs, being able to provide different dimensions to the offense is definitely great. Now we’re just trying to utilize each one in the right scenarios. My goal every time I go back and watch plays is, ‘How can I improve? How can I make different decisions to be more successful in this same situations?’ We’ll be…in a lot of close games this year, as we were last year. Now it’s about how we can make that next step as a team, and for myself personally.
Dobbs is a senior, and this is his team. It’s time to trust him to make big plays downfield. The only way to do that is to take the restrictor plates off the offense and let it go. Make defenses loosen up so things are easier on running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
Too many times last year in third- and fourth-down situations, DeBord stayed simple. Putting the game in defensive coordinator John Jancek‘s hands proved to be the wrong call, as his defense struggled early.
The Vols’ horses were on offense, and they’ll be loaded with talent again this year. DeBord doesn’t need to drive his Ferrari like a Pinto.
As maddening as Tennessee’s reluctance to open up the offense was early last season, its inability to get off the field on defense with games on the line was worse.
Not all of it can be blamed on former coordinator Jancek, such as Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield‘s amazing wriggling-free act for the entire fourth quarter of that crazy comeback. But there was still plenty of reason for hand-wringing when it came to Tennessee’s defense.
With some of the best pass-rushers in the SEC at their disposal, the Vols almost never blitzed in key moments. That won’t be the case under new coordinator Bob Shoop.
“Our philosophy is to rotate guys early in the season and early in games,” Shoop told the Knoxville News Sentinel‘s John Adams in a story regarding UT’s lack of defensive prowess in the fourth quarter. “So when it comes time for a critical third down, you’ve got your best pass-rushers in the game.”
Last season, Tennessee’s best pass-rushers were in the game against Florida, and Jancek still ran a quarterback spy on 4th-and-14 on what wound up being the Gators’ dramatic, go-ahead touchdown. It was only the most visible of UT’s fourth-quarter, fourth-down collapses in that game.
Inexplicably, the Vols rushed only three on that decisive play. That call probably contributed to Jancek’s dismissal as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator.
But the UT defense’s inability to get off the field was a constant problem a season ago. Shoop has to change that, and given his history of bringing the house and blitzing like crazy, he probably will. If he’s too conservative with the game on the line, it’ll truly be puzzling.
Shoop has to get that turned around in a hurry, but he isn’t alone.
Tennessee’s players are accountable, too.
One of the things said in Hoover this past week that Tennessee fans should have taken to heart most of all was Jones’ story about linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
A slogan UT’s coach has harped on this offseason is “finding 25 points,” meaning that in the Vols’ past 18 games, they’re 13-5 with those losses being by a total of 25 points. That narrow margin isn’t lost on UT’s players, either.
The reason why Jones speaks so much about it to the media is he doesn’t need to when it comes to his team. The Vols’ leadership is doing that for him, according to B/R’s Barrett Sallee:
In that video, Jones said on the SEC Network telecast, Reeves-Maybin’s miscues were shown first. What good would his point be if he didn’t let everyone know he was talking about fixing his own mistakes, too?
The thing about leadership is leaders eat last. The first thing he did is he showed clips from different games of himself, whether it was a missed tackle, whether it was a missed communication, a missed fundamental in coverage, and it started with him. Then he proceeded to go through all of the critical plays—offense, defense and special teams. And a football play can come down to two to three plays that mean the difference between winning and losing, and you never know which play it’s going to be. That play could be in the first quarter. You just never know. That’s why you play every play like it’s your last. That’s some of the educational things.
The coaches didn’t do everything right a season ago, but everything ultimately comes down to players making plays.
If the Vols bring down Mayfield on one of those third- or fourth-down plays, Oklahoma doesn’t come back and win. If Antonio Callaway side-steps Malik Foreman and Emmanuel Moseley and gets past them for the long touchdown, nobody cares that UT failed to blitz.
Maybe if Preston Williams doesn’t fumble in his own 20-yard line against Arkansas, the Vols keep rolling. If somebody bats down one of those Jake Coker prayers on Alabama’s go-ahead touchdown drive, Tennessee pulls off a monumental upset.
Accountability is shared throughout a team, and the Vols know that. Last season taught them. This year’s team seems to get that because of all the experience and leadership. None of the Vols can be content with just getting talked about by the media in July.
If they’re still discussing Tennessee in December, that’ll mean the Vols fixed the close-game issues and broke through for a breakout year.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report CFB