Coming out on TOP

Getting Tennessee's offense and defense firing on all cylinders at the same time has been an elusive process this season. Outside of the possible exceptions of the first half of the Georgia game and the second half vs. Florida, it's hard to make a case both units have played well for even 30 minutes at the same time in 2004.

The South Carolina game stands as perhaps the most stark example so far of UT's offense and defense being out of sync. The Vols' stop troops played a physical brand of football early and, despite dealing with unfavorable field position, held the Gamecocks without a touchdown for the first 48:30 of the contest. Then UT's defense did an abrupt about face, surrendering 21 points in the next 10:08. On offense: Tennessee went without a score of any kind for the first 29:30 of the S.C. game, but rebounded to ring up 36 points in the next 25:41.

There's nothing uncharacteristic about Tennessee's offense getting out of the starting gate slowly. It's a trend that has been consistently present in 2004 with the exception of the Georgia and Ole Miss games in which the Vols got out to early advantages.

There could very well be a correlation between the offense's slow start and the defense's late flop and it relates to time of possession. South Carolina won the TOP battle controlling the ball 37:39 of the game to Tennessee's 22:21 a difference of 15:18 or better than an entire quarter of play. The disparity was better than 2-to-1 in the first half with the Gamecocks owning a commanding 20:53 to 9:07 advantage. South Carolina added to that lead in both the third and fourth quarters, as UT failed win any quarter in the TOP category.

The good news about this statistic is that the Vols were scoring quickly with drives of 2:23, 2:28, 0:05, 2:08 and 3:01. The bad news is that Tennessee's defense was left on the field for most of the game. Many analysts believe time of possession is an overrated stat because you can score a lot of points without having the ball a long time, or you can have the ball a long time without scoring a lot points. However, it's doubtful any of those same analysts played on a defense that is fatigued and forced to stay on the field.

Tennessee's situation is further exasperated by a lack of depth at all three levels of the defense — line, linebackers and secondary — as well as a schedule that has required the Vols to play seven straight weeks without a break going into the South Carolina game.

Ultimately, if Tennessee can get the offense and defense clicking in unison there is ample reason to believe its best football is ahead and outstanding achievements await. On the other hand, if the Vols are never able to get quality performances out of both units at the same time by the end of season they are unlikely to win an SEC title or qualify as a BCS team.

The Vols usually have a balanced offense which is the key to the success of their system. Against South Carolina the Vols had 166 yards through the air with three touchdowns and 246 yards on the ground with two touchdowns, plus a two-point conversion. However UT is imbalanced in terms of production i.e. inconsistent. To keep its defense fresh, Tennessee needs to control the clock by regularly moving the chains and giving Dustin Colquitt more chances to flip field position.

Neither has UT's offense put James Wilhoit in position to score. He didn't have an attempt against South Carolina and has attempted only 10 field goals through eight games, hitting five. On the season, the Vols have a slight edge in time of possession — a 30:13 to 29:26 per game average. But the season's biggest victory came against Georgia when UT had a better than 10-minute edge in TOP.

The 567 yards Tennessee surrendered against South Carolina is a concern, but most of the damage was done in the fourth quarter when the game had already been decided and UT's defense had been on the field for a long time. The Gamecocks' last scoring drive came against a Tennessee D made up mostly of reserves. It's first two points were scored on a safety. There's every reason to believe if the Vols had done something more than gain 35 yards in it's first 17 plays, the defense would have been fresh enough to have finished strong.

Bottom line: If Tennessee controls the ball, it controls its destiny.

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