Opponents are converting 45.5 percent of their third-down tries against Tennessee, which ranks the Vols dead last among SEC programs. Arkansas is next-to-last at 39.5.
Tennessee's difficulty getting third-down stops is no recent development. Vol opponents converted 41 percent of the time in 2006 and 40 percent of the time in 2007.
"I've been tagged 'The Third-Down Guru' but on the wrong end of it," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis conceded. "I've looked back at our stats last year, the year before and the year before that. We've been OK but not where we want to be."
The Vols fell well short of "OK" last weekend against Florida. The Gators converted 8 of 13 third-down tries, a sizzling 61.5 percent success rate. Still, Chavis found only a couple of the conversions upsetting.
"In Saturday's game there were two situations on third down that I was really disappointed in ... two stops that we should've gotten," he said. "One of them I had us in a bad defense; I gave our defense no chance to make a play. The other one he (Tim Tebow) held the ball and held the ball. We were in a man-to-man situation, the receiver made a catch and they (officials) said he was in bounds. Those were the two that were really disappointing.
"Third down you've got to be able to get off the field. This game we didn't do it as well as we needed to. Had we gotten those two third-down stops – which should've been easy stops for us – I think we would've been OK in third-down defense."
Florida is especially difficult to stop on third-and-short situations because (1) the Gators play a Spread offense that creates wider gaps and (2) the Gators have a 6-3, 240-pound quarterback (Tebow) who runs better than most NCAA fullbacks.
As Chavis put it: "Against that offense, you're not going to get as many stops on third-and-short when you've got a 245-pounder (Tebow) who can pick and weave and get a yard on his own. He's good at that."
Although he acknowledges that third down is crucial because "it's an opportunity to get off the field," Chavis believes first down and second down are just as important.
"That's always been our philosophy," he said. "Last week we did our best job of first-down defense all year. We gave up some runs on second down that put us in a lot of third-and-short situations but we got 'em in enough third-and-longs that we should've been successful."
Here's a recap of Florida's third-down successes:
- Third-and-8 at the UT 30: Tebow shovel pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez gains 13 yards
- Third-and-goal at the UT 2: Tebow jump-pass to Hernandez for touchdown.
- Third-and-3 at the Florida 10: Tebow keeps for a gain of 5.
- Third-and-13 at the Florida 26: Tebow hits Percy Harvin for a gain of 34.
- Third-and-1 at the UT 23: Tebow keeps for a gain of 3.
- Third-and-5 at the UT 15: Tebow hits Harvin for a 15-yard touchdown.
- Third-and-2 at the UT 41: Tebow keeps for a gain of 2.
- Third-and-10 at the Florida 46: Tebow hits Louis Murphy for 24 yards.
Even discounting the shovel pass (which essentially is a draw play), Florida completed passes of 2, 15, 24 and 34 yards en route to third-down conversions last Saturday. That's unacceptable.
"We've got to get better at it," Vol secondary coach Larry Slade said. "We've got to get those third-and-longs better, and we're working to get that done."
The key to getting third-down stops is the same as the key to getting first-down and second-down stops.
"You've just got to make plays," Slade said. "We're getting better at it."
Of course, sometimes it's the opposing offense that makes the play. That's understandable, since it has scholarship players, too.
"There are some guys (opponents) that have made some plays – not because we've been in bad position or busted coverages," Slade said. "There have been some guys that have made some plays at some of those times."