Who'll win third down?

When the Tennessee Vols don't convert on third down, they don't win ... even if they're playing at home.

After converting on 7 of 9 third-down opportunities (77.7 percent) in a Game 1 blowout of Western Kentucky, Tennessee has converted on just 18 of 58 tries (31.0 percent) in the four games since. The Vols were especially inept in home-field losses to UCLA (4 of 15) and Auburn (4 of 17), converting just 25 percent of the time.

Even with the Western Kentucky game included, Tennessee's 36.8 percent conversion rate for the 2009 season ranks ninth among the 12 SEC teams. Only Mississippi State (35.2), Vanderbilt (34.5) and Arkansas (26.0) have done worse.

Clearly, the Vols need to do a better job on third down if they are to beat Georgia Saturday at Neyland Stadium. So what's the key to that endeavor?

"First of all, you do better on first and second down to put yourself in better third-down situations," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "If you look at most successful teams, their average third down has a lot to do with it."

Obviously, third-and-three is a lot easier to convert than third-and-eight. That's why Tennessee tends to run the ball on first down. It's less likely to leave the Vols facing third-and-long. UT's performance in last Saturday night's loss to Auburn was a prime example.

"If you are completing less than 50 percent, like we were on first and second down in that game in our base offense, you're going to give yourself some really tough third downs," Kiffin noted. "We've been a great third-and-2 or third-and-3 team this year. At the stage we're at offensively it's tough on third-and-10. It's tough for anybody but it's really tough when you're not making a bunch of plays outside (with wide receivers) and you've got some new players upfront."

A review of Tennessee's third-down opportunities vs. Auburn illustrates just how weak the Vols were in third-down situations:

Third-and-8: Incomplete pass, punt.

Third-and-8: Complete for 7 yards, punt.

Third-and-4: Incomplete pass, punt.

Third-and-5: Incomplete pass, punt.

Third-and-3: Montario Hardesty runs for no gain, punt.

Third-and-11: Incomplete pass, punt.

Third-and-10: Pass complete to Luke Stocker for 40 yards, first down.

Third-and-10: Incomplete pass, punt.

Third-and-8: Jonathan Crompton scrambles for 6 yards, punt.

Third-and-8: Pass complete to Gerald Jones for 7 yards, Vols convert on fourth down.

Third-and-11: Incomplete pass, punt.

Tennessee converted on just 1 of 11 third-down opportunities through three quarters. Down 23-6 in the fourth, the Vols went to a no-huddle attack that provided a spark. Here's a look at their third-down tries in the final period:

Third-and-7: Incomplete pass, Vols convert on fourth down. Third-and-3: Hardesty 4-yard run, first down. Third-and-3: Pass complete to Quintin Hancock for 8 yards, first down. Third-and-10: Pass complete to Denarius Moore for 4 yards, Vols convert on fourth down. Third-and-goal at the 10: Incomplete pass, field goal. Third-and-10: Pass complete to Moore for a 32-yard touchdown.

Four-of-17 on third down wasn't good enough to beat Auburn last weekend, and it probably won't be good enough to beat Georgia this weekend.

"We've got to do better on first and second down, then when we come to third down we've got to do things right," Kiffin said. "It's crunch time."

And what you do at crunch time usually determines whether you win or lose.

"I think the biggest evaluation for all players is to take what they do on third down and take what they do in two-minute drill," Kiffin said. "That's when the crowd's loud, when all the pressure's on. It's easier to do things right on first and second down, so I think you learn a lot about players in those (third-down) situations."

What he's learned about Tennessee's players in recent third-down situations is not particularly encouraging. A key reason the Vols have lost three of their last four games is their inability to convert on third down.

"It's tough," senior center Cody Sullins said. "You just have to let all of the players know in the huddle that it's really important and that we have to pick it up for us to win. We can't be inefficient on third down and win. You can't win NOT winning on third down.

"It's a mental mindset. You have to go out there and know you have to get it done, then you get it done."


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