- Game 1 foe California ran the ball 14 times for 112 yards on first down, an average of exactly 8.0 yards per carry. The Golden Bears passed the ball 10 times on first down, completing 8 for 141 yards. That's an average of 14.1 yards per attempt.
- Game 2 foe Southern Miss ran the ball 14 times for 42 yards on first down, an average of precisely 3.0 yards per carry. The Golden Eagles passed the ball 12 times, completing 6 for a whopping 123 yards. That's an average of 10.3 yards per attempt and 20.5 per completion.
- Game 3 foe Florida ran the ball 20 times for 136 yards on first down, an average of 6.8 yards per carry. The Gators passed the ball 7 times, completing 6 for a mind-boggling 224 yards. That's an average of 32.0 yards per attempt and 37.3 per completion.
It's obvious from these numbers that the two quality offenses Tennessee has faced – Cal and Florida – gashed the Vols with first-down runs and burned them with first-down passes. Southern Miss struggled to run on first down but hit some big pass plays.
Asked about Tennessee's difficulty in this area, defensive coordinator John Chavis deadpanned: "Last year we needed to improve on third down. Maybe we spent too much time working on third down and we need to go work on first down."
Turning serious, the Vol aide added: "We've gotten hurt and given up some big plays on first down."
That's a fact. With Tennessee "selling out" to stop the run on first down, foes have killed the Vols with deep balls. Cal completed a 49-yard pass. Southern Miss hit a 69-yarder. Florida completed passes of 49, 48 and 44 yards. All five of these huge gains occurred on first down.
The fact Tennessee's defense is surrendering 31.7 points per game can be traced to several factors – missed tackles, no pass rush, busts in the secondary – but the inability to limit foes to manageable gains on first down may be the biggest factor.
"We look at first down as a setup down," Chavis said. "We want to get the down-and-distance in our favor, and it's very important that you play first down. You have to play all of ‘em but, obviously, if a team's having success on first down then they're moving the football. It's fair to say we've played very poorly on first down."
In addition to setting the tone for second down, a sizable gain on a first-down play can set the tone for an entire possession.
"There's a direct correlation between giving up big plays and scoring drives," Chavis said. "It's been obvious throughout the year."
Indeed. Consider how these first-down plays affected Florida's possessions last weekend:
- Possession No. 1: Tim Tebow keeps for 2 yards ... Punt.
- Possession No. 2: Tebow keeps for no gain ... Punt.
- Possession No. 3: Percy Harvin runs for 10 yards. Pass complete for 25 yards. Pass complete for 30 yards ... Touchdown.
- Possession No. 4: Harvin runs for 9. Harvin runs for 3. Tebow runs for 8 ... Touchdown.
- Possession No. 5: Harvin runs for 5. Pass complete for 28. Kestahn Moore runs for 5 ... Touchdown.
- Possession No. 6: Harvin runs for 9. Moore runs for 11. Incomplete pass. Moore runs for 2 ... Interception return for UT touchdown.
- Possession No. 7: Harvin runs for 9. Tebow keeps for 3 ... Punt.
- Possession No. 8: Pass complete for 49 yards. Moore runs for 4. Jarred Fayson runs for 1. Harvin runs for 19 ... Touchdown.
- Possession No. 9: Pass complete for 48 yards ... Touchdown.
- Possession No. 10: Moore runs for 8. Pass complete for 44. Brandon James runs for 13 ... Field goal.
Clearly, allowing significant gains on first down makes stopping an opponent virtually impossible. Chavis knows this.
"We know what the problems are," he said. "We're working on solutions. People say, ‘Well, what are you going to do?' The only thing I know to do is work harder and work smarter. That's what we're trying to get done."