Vols Don't Play Takeaway

From strategy to psychology there are no shortage of theories for what ailed the Vols against Auburn on Saturday, and for that matter every season since UT's national title run of 1998.

Some point to a decline in the running game. Others opine Tennessee has lost its recruiting edge. Still others see an offense that has become predictable and a defense that has lost its stinger to say nothing of its pass rush.

There's no question that all these views have some legitimacy as well as statistical data to support them. Of course, statistics can be very misleading as our current Presidential campaign underscores.

However, if you're looking for one statistic that is simple and true. One barometer that will virtually always support the winning side in any football contest, or favor any team in the midst of championship campaign — try the turnover ratio.

Sure, there will be contests in which the turnover ratio might tilt toward the loser, but over the course of a season and seasons, it is as reliable as sunrise and chicken soup. On the occasions when it's not, a team may throw an interception on a hail mary at the end of a half and, otherwise, the turnovers are even. Or there are third and long INTs that are as good as the punt. There are also hidden turnovers like the long drive that ends in a missed field goal from short range or the punt that is blocked.

Any insightful analysis in the aftermath of the annihilation by Auburn has to begin with turnovers. The Vols had six giveaways vs. two takeaways for a minus four turnover ratio. Each of those four giveaways either cost Tennessee points or led to Auburn scores. It's difficult to understate the significance of four extra possessions in a game decided by 24 points.

This is not to suggest Auburn wasn't the superior team on Saturday. Clearly it was, if judged on nothing but the fact it took much better care of the football than UT did. The Tigers were also more physical which is another characteristic of teams that force more miscues than they commit. However, the degree of dominance is another matter as was the fact Auburn seized momentum from the first play and never relinquished control.

Still it should be pointed out from Tennessee's standpoint, it was nearly impossible to ever gain any momentum when the Vols trailed throughout the contest and were constantly awarding their opponent with the gift of possession. Like the law, in football possession is nine-tenths of the game. UT never sustained any offensive consistency because it never maintained possession of the football.

Defensively, the Vols came in with a game plan to limit the production of Auburn's ground game and force quarterback Jason Campbell to beat them. They did and so did he. In part, he completed 80 percent of his passes in the first half because the Vols failed to apply any pressure, essentially allowing him to stand in the pocket and play pitch and catch. Unencumbered by time or even the occasional hand in the face, Campbell could pick out his targets and Auburn was able to exploit UT's young secondary.

Campbell also had the luxury of playing with a lead which dramatically reduces internal pressure, especially on the road before a hostile crowd. Tennessee's packed house was taken out of the game early as Auburn built its lead and the Vols continued to come unraveled. In fairness to the two freshmen QBs, they were forced into a catch-up mode far too early. As high school seniors, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer were accustomed to bringing their teams back from a deficit by making big plays. The tendency to do the same thing at the SEC level is tantamount to forcing the issue which usually leads to mistakes.

It's hard to isolate a turning point in a game as one-sided as the Tennessee-Auburn affair. Some might say it was the opening kickoff, and that's not so far from the truth. When the Vols lost the coin toss and Auburn elected to kickoff it thrust a shaky Ainge into the spotlight in his first collegiate start and he performed like a player who was nervous. Three incomplete passes that were nowhere near their intended target forced an immediate punt and undermined the young signal callers confidence. Dustin Colquitt's kick was deflected setting Auburn up with excellent field position.

But it was on third down of Auburn's first series that the pivotal play occurred. On third and three, Campbell threw a pass in the flat to Courtney Taylor. UT safety Brandon Johnson read the route and broke on the ball. Had he caught the ball which was in his hands he had clear sailing to the end zone. Instead, he botched the catch and allow Taylor to not only pull in the deflection but to turn it into a first down. Auburn scored six plays later to take a lead it would never relinquish. Even if Johnson had knocked the ball down it would have forced an Auburn punt in the first two minutes of the first quarter instead of the 13: 23 mark of the third quarter when the score was already 31-3.

On the other hand, had Johnson made the play and scored a touchdown there's no way to calculate the momentum lift Tennessee would have received or the confidence Ainge would gain or the pressure Campbell would feel after putting his team in a hole so early.

Taking care of the football is just one half of the turnover ratio. A team also has to make its breaks and seize the opportunities that come its way. Johnson's failure to make the interception against Auburn doesn't show up in the statistics but it was UT's best hope of victory. It's the type of play the Vols would have made in 1998 and the type of play that they have too often failed to make in the five years since.

Question that do you? Good it shows that you're thinking for yourself. And while your doing so you might want to think about this statistic.

Tennessee had a plus-16 turnover ratio as a team in 1998 which is the same total it has combined in 1999 (plus 3), 2000 (plus 3), 2001 (plus 5), 2002 (plus 2) and 2003 (plus 3). If you throw in the minus two turnover ratio UT has so far in 2004 that number drops to plus 14. That means the Vols had a better turnover ratio in 13 games of the 1998 title season than it has had in the 54 games since.

While we're on the 1998 season UT fans may recall that the key play in the Vols victory 17-9 victory over Auburn on the road that year was a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown by defensive end Shaun Ellis. If Auburn came away with a field goal instead of the turnover the Vols probably lose that game 12-10.

Earlier that season, UT beat high-powered Florida for the first time in five years despite an offense that scored only 17 points in regulation play. They turned the trick by forcing five turnovers in the game.

Then there was the impossible come-from-behind win over undefeated Arkansas that season which was made possible by forced fumble and recovery in the last two minutes of the game with the Razorbacks in the lead and in control of the football in UT territory. The Vols also blocked field goal that game and forced a safety on an Arkansas punt.

Finally, there was the BCS title game itself in which Dwayne Goodrich picked off a Florida State pass and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown in Tennessee's 23-17 Fiesta Bowl triumph. Simple math tells you where the Vols would have been without that play.

Big plays by UT's special teams and by the defense have been more and more rare in the five-plus years since the excitement of that perfect season. Until they return as a prominent components in Tennessee's team makeup, Tennessee won't return as a prominent team in the national picture.

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