Certainly UT's I-formation is more sophisticated than the one John McKay and the Trojans rode into gridiron glory, but the concept is essentially the same. Like a power pitcher with a blazing fast ball it tells the defense its intentions and dares it to stop them. If a defense can't contain an offensive attack that plows straight ahead without a modicum of pretense, it becomes discouraged and eventually demoralized and defeated.
Given a large, experienced and talented offensive line along with plenty of depth and diversity at tailback, Vol foes can expect more of the same this season. However while they're bracing for UT's power surge out of the I-formation, they might also be aware of the Vols' capacity to alter their strategy with a single command.
The aforementioned depth and diversity of UT's stable of running backs along with the need to align tight end Jason Witten in the most advantageous position to pose a pass-catching threat could lead to the Vols playing I-Spy with a little disguise.
The I-formation affords offensive coordinator Randy Sanders a lot of options, particularly with the personnel he has at his disposal. Deployed with the quarterback, upback, swingback and tailback in a straight I-formation allows the Vols to easily disguise their intentions and forces defenses to make late adjustments which takes away from their game preparations and aggressiveness. Normally UT will come out with Troy Fleming at fullback in front of Witten at swingback and Jabari Davis at tailback. From this position the defense can't set its coverage on Witten until he breaks the I and settles into tight end, a slot, goes in motion, or becomes a wing or flanker. This makes it impossible to know whether UT intends Witten to be an added blocker at the point of attack or if he is trying to lure a linebacker out of the box, or moving into the slot to run a combo route with Kelley Washington or Leonard Scott. This complicates coverage for a defense that is intent on double teaming Washington and is fearful of leaving Scott in single coverage without deep help from the safety. Speed is the element that defensive coordinators fear the most and in Scott and Jonathan Wade the Vols have two of the fastest receivers on the planet.
Even if this blazing tandem doesn't catch a lot of passes, it will stretch defenses vertically and open up opportunities underneath, in the flats and over the middle. Moreover it will prevent the safeties from walking up in run support which will make the running game all the more effective.
A similar tactic with different personnel can be performed by placing Witten at tight end on the right side and using Derrick Tinsley as the swing back. The Vols can then shift into a slot by widening Witten out and putting Tinsley at the slot back. Then Fleming, a good receiver, goes in motion to the left side giving the Vols four receivers. This formation will stretch the defense horizontally while still allowing the Vols to pose a running threat with Davis as the lone back. From this position, Davis gives UT an extra 235-pound blocker that provides Casey Clausen time to work combo routes to either side or Davis can run the ball on the sprint draw or catch a quick screen against a defense that has been spread from sideline to sideline.
Another tactic that can be deceptively deployed from the I-formation is what is known as the lighthouse effect. This would again feature Tinsley as the swingback with Fleming and Davis at fullback and tailback. On command Tinsley shifts into a wing position on the right side. At the snap of the ball the fullback blocks over the play side guard (left) and the tailback follows with a good fake. The defense, which has been programed to stop the blast through a long week of preparation, reacts to the lighthouse effect < both backs going to the same side. However instead of handing off to the tailback, Clausen fakes and pitches to Tinsley who comes to the play side from his wing position. It's particularly hard to stop because the defense's attention is drawn to the blast. The defender attempting to follow Tinsley will get caught in traffic caused by the fake and Washington will run a couple of defenders off the ball by going deep from the left side. The end result is that Tinsley could well turn the corner and find himself isolated on a single defender.
Even if this play doesn't result in a big gain, it forces the defense to hesitate on reacting so quickly to the blast which makes it more successful in the long run.
One of the more intriguing options out of the I-formation for Tennessee would feature the fullback over the tailback. This option is more formidable than in the past because both Fleming and Davis are excellent running threats and fullback size. Tennessee could spring the quick fullback trap behind a pair of athletic guards as it did with Shawn Bryson in 1998 vs. Florida. They could run some veer scheme or dives, or pitches and for the most part the line assignments wouldn't change. This allows the offense to maximize the looks it shows the defense with a minimum of plays.
We've just touched the surface of deceptions that can be sprung from the basic I-formation and it's easy enough to discern the demands it places on the defense. The bottom line is that shifting from one formation to another tests an opponent's defensive game plan to the max. It's hard enough to adjust to a new formation when an offense sets up in it out of the huddle, but if you shift into a new formation before the snap it creates confusion and hesitation for the defense. It also places a hardship on future opponents that must prepare for the shift in addition to the offense's bread and butter sets.
The only thing really required to carry out such subterfuge is a whole lot of ammunition and a little bit of imagination.