Gen. Robert Neyland's first Game Maxim is "the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win" and for the first three years under the leadership of Butch Jones, winning that part of the battle was like clock work for the Tennessee Volunteers.
With Jones' first three teams, they prided themselves on protecting the football and having few penalties.
Those squads Vols showed an elite level of discipline in terms of penalties per game and yardage lost on those penalties. The Vols averaged 4.6 infractions per game while losing an average of 37 penalty yards. The 2014 Vols finished in the top 10 in the NCAA in both categories and has finished in the top 30 in 2013 and 2015.
Three consecutive recruiting classes that rank by Scout in the top 20 nationally show that Tennessee's two-deep has its most talent in years. However, the penalty rate doesn't look nearly as favorable, having nearly doubled and stands at seven per game, which ranks 76th nationally. The yards lost on those penalties is 69.6 yards per game, finding the Vols 95th nationally.
Saturday saw experienced team leaders like running back Jalen Hurd commit a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a costly offsides penalty where defensive Derek Barnett lined up incorrectly on a third-down stop. The next four opponents — No. 1 Alabama, No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 12 Georgia and No. 19 Florida — all rank in the top 25 and have the personnel to make Tennessee pay dearly for such mistakes.
"The past successes we have had we have not turned the ball over, we have not had very many penalties, and we have played good special teams," Jones said at his Monday press conference. "This team has had way too many penalties and that's the small details of winning."
The first three Volunteer teams under Jones did a solid job of keeping the ball off of the ground due to fumbles. Those three teams averaged just over 17 fumbles a year while Team 120 on pace for an eye-popping 44 fumbles, having already laid the ball on the ground 11 times in three games. Big Orange fans should load up on lottery tickets because the Vols have been lucky, recovering all but one of those fumbles. The Vols cannot rely on the bounces going their way in the weeks ahead.
"We always talk about the ball being our goals, our dreams and aspirations in valuing the football," Jones said. "That's obviously going to be an emphasis this week. We are a veteran team and we will get it right and it starts with the coaches and then the players."
There could not be a better time in the schedule to focus on Neyland's teachings. (It's hard to argue with a coach that went 173-31-12.)