If we closely inspect statistical data from Tennessee games over the last six years the truth of that statement is plainly underscored. As much as the game of football has evolved in terms of aerial sophistication, it's still a contest that is essentially settled in the dust.
Over the last six seasons, Tennessee has compiled a remarkable 62-13 record with three SEC East titles, two SEC crowns and one national championship. During two of those years the Vols were led by Peyton Manning — the most prolific passer in school history. The last two years of that span has seen Casey Clausen emerge as a challenger to Manning's historical perch high above UT's QB heap. In between these passing fancies, Tee Martin carved his own niche in Vol lore with his mobility and big-play ability. And yet as undeniably gifted as this trio of signal callers are, it's Tennessee's talent for running the football and stopping the run that has provided the foundation for their triumphs.
This six-year analysis also offers insight into defensive coordinator John Chavis' philosophical approach during his seven years on the job while allowing him one start-up season for employing his schemes. Just as Fulmer cut his teeth in the trenches, Chavis played the on the other side of the line during his football career and regards run defense as the most critical component to a healthy bottom line.
From 1996 through the 2001 season, Tennessee out rushed its opponents 9,573 yards to 6,344 — a difference of 3,229 yards. Those figures are further illuminated by the yard per carry disparity as the Vols averaged 4.2 yards per run while opponents averaged 2.7 yards per rushing attempt.
Although the difference here may appear insignificant in an era of 400-yard passing games, it's cumulative impact is profound when you consider the critical elements to sustaining drives. What it reveals is that if Tennessee runs the ball on first and second down their average down-and-distance scenario would be third and 1.6 yards, compared to an opponents third down and 4.6 yards. By the standard unit of measurements 1 to 2 yards is considered third-and-short, 3 to 4 yards is third-and-medium and more than 4 yards is third and long. On average over the last six years when attempting to establish the run or sustain a drive, Tennessee most often faced third-and -short while its opponents were on the short end of third-and-long.
Tennessee's offensive efficiency soars under such circumstances because the Vols force defenses to become one dimensional. Having to play the run first poses problems when attempting to pressure the passer and makes defenses vulnerable to play-action. Conversely, while seeing more third-and-long situations, UT's defense can pressure the passer with near impunity and force opponent's to take risks.
So is it any surprise that the Vols enjoy a plus-35 turnover ratio over that six-year span, or that they are hitting 62 percent of their pass attempts compared to 52 percent for their opponents. If that doesn't impress you consider this fact: Tennessee has averaged 39.6 sacks per season over the last six years including a school record 50 in 2000 which broke the previous mark of 47 in 1997. Tennessee's average of 39.6 sacks per season during our sample period exceeds the total sacks in any prior season in UT history except for 1992 when the Vols had 40.
The Vol stop troops also posted a historical high for quarterback pressures with 108 in 1998 passing the previous mark of 98 from 1997. Overall Tennessee compiled 525 quarterback pressures in six years and accumulated 238 sacks. Compare that to a six-year sample period from two decades ago (1976 to 1981) when the Vols tallied 115 sacks.
If you're still not pulled in by the gravity of the ground game, here's one more thing to mull over. During our six-year evaluation, Tennessee has bettered the competition in the category of rushing touchdowns 135 to 39. Tennessee's capacity to score touchdowns on the ground compared to its opponents failure to do the same provides the perfect punctuation to our pigskin probe.
Last season the rushing TD comparison was a direct barometer of the Vols success and failure. In 2001 Tennessee lost two games and failed to score a rushing touchdown in either contest. In their biggest victory, 34-32 over Florida, the Vols enjoyed their largest advantage scoring a season-high four rushing touchdowns while allowing one. In its first meeting with LSU, Tennessee didn't allow any TDs on the ground and came away with a victory, but in their rematch the Tigers scored three times on the ground and the Vols suffered their most devastating defeat.
In 10 of its 11 victories last season, UT enjoyed an edge in rushing touchdowns. No rushing touchdowns were scored by either team in the loss to Georgia. In their struggle to beat a vastly inferior Kentucky squad, the Vols were outscored on the ground 1 to 0.
Some statistics are highly misleading, but the integrity of these numbers need no qualification. They clearly show the only substitute for a great running game is a remarkable run defense. Simply put: the Vols are only as good as their ability to run and stop the run.
(Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Tennessee's rush defense. In part two we will look at personnel and strategy.)