In the last two weeks, Tennessee has found out what it's like to lose your most valuable offensive player. Quarterback Erik Ainge has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain, and the Vols have dropped back-to-back games to SEC West foes. First LSU beat them in Knoxville, then Arkansas clobbered them last week in Fayetteville. Now, the Big Orange finds itself trailing Kentucky by a half game in the SEC East standings. A loss here Saturday and a loss to Kentucky the week after could drop them all the way to the Music City Bowl.
Tennessee is almost a one dimensional team. When Ainge is healthy, they are a potent passing team that can win without much help from their running game. A two yard dive on 3rd and one is all the running attack needs to contribute.
Ainge will not be 100% healthy, but he has been upgraded from questionable to probable. Expect him to play.
Let's take a look at Tennessee's statistics to date:
Scoring: 29.6 points per game ranks 3rd in the SEC and 24th of 119 in Division I-A
Rushing Average: 106.2 yards per game (3.6 avg) ranks 10th in the SEC, 91st in Division I-A
Passing Average: 266.5 yards per game ranks 1st in the SEC, 11th in Division I-A. The Volunteers are completing 63.5% of their passes and averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt.
Passing Efficiency: 150.2 ranks 2nd in the SEC and 18th in Division I-A
Total Yardage: 372.7 yards per game ranks 4th in the SEC and 76th in Division I-A
QB Sacks allowed: 12 sacks in 10 games ranks 3rd in the SEC and 18th in Division I-A
Turnover Margin: +3 in 10 games ranks 3rd in the SEC and 37th in Division I-A
Breakdown by Position
Tennessee has a storied history of excellent pass-catchers. Kelley Washington, Peerless Price, Marcus Nash, Joey Kent, Cory Fleming, Carl Pickens, Tim McGee, Willie Gault, Larry Sievers, and Richmond Flowers have all been the best in the league during their tenures on The Hill.
Robert Meachem (6-3, 210 Jr.) isn't the best in the league, but he's one of the top three. Through 10 games, he has 54 receptions for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns. He can get deep in a hurry, and burn a secondary for a quick six. Meachem torched California in the opening game of the season, finishing with 182 yards in receptions. He may be less than 100% for the Vanderbilt game, but he will still be used to go deep.
Jayson Swain (6-1, 205 Sr.) is another deep threat for the orange and white. He has 34 receptions for 513 yards and five scores. Since the Georgia game, where he sprained an ankle, he hasn't been as effective going deep, but he has continue to contribute with 12 receptions in the last four games.
Bret Smith (6-3, 190 Sr.) has come on strong at the end of the season. He was one of the few bright spots in last week's loss at Arkansas. For the season, Smith has 35 receptions for 405 yards (in nine games).
While Tennessee has never been known to feature their tight end in passing plays, they have two fine players who have contributed to the passing game this season.
Chris Brown (6-3, 250 Jr.) gives the Vols a viable outlet receiver. He has 20 receptions for the season.
Brad Cottam (6-8, 260 Jr.) is a huge target for Ainge and Crompton. Since the South Carolina game, he has started to show signs of a being a force. He has the potential to go deep over the middle and take some heat off Meachem and Swain.
The Tennessee offensive line features five outstanding pass protectors. As a unit, they haven't blocked well for the run.
Left Tackle Arron Sears (6-4, 320 Sr.) is the one exception to the rule. He blocks for the run quite admirably. He stands a good chance of making somebody's All-American list.
Left Guard David Ligon (6-5, 300 Sr.) utilizes outstanding quickness and intelligence at his position to prevent pass rushers from getting to the quarterback.
Center Josh McNeil (6-4, 290 Fr.) assumed the starting position against Memphis and has held onto it since. While he has loads of potential, he is a bit raw and will make a few mistakes carrying out his assignment.
Right Guard Anthony Parker (6-3, 305 So.), like Ligon, is quick and can outmaneuver pass rushers on his side.
Right Tackle Eric Young (6-4, 310 Jr.) is another good pass protector who leaves room for improvement with run blocking.
Erik Ainge (6-6, 220 Jr.), when healthy, is possibly the best NFL prospect at this position in the SEC. Working under the tutelage of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, Ainge has resurrected his career. In eight games, he has passed for 2216 yards (over 275 yards per game). He has completed two thirds of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt and 16 touchdowns.
Jonathan Crompton (6-4, 225 Fr.) has filled in for Ainge the last two weeks. He's completed exactly half of his passes at an average of 6.5 yards per attempt. Crompton is a much better runner than Ainge.
Cory Anderson (6-3, 255 Sr.) sees action when Tennessee goes to a two-back formation. He is strictly a blocker, as he has carried the pigskin one time this year for one yard.
Arian Foster (6-1, 215 So.) was supposed to be the next big weapon in the backfield after rushing for 879 yards last year. 2006 has been a sophomore jinx year for Foster; it has been an injury-plagued season, and he has gotten into some trouble over a shoving incident in a nightclub. For the season, Foster has just 263 yards rushing.
Montario Hardesty (6-0, 205 Fr.) began the season like he could repeat Foster's 2005 freshman season. He since has tapered off and has just 303 yards rushing.
All three of the tailbacks can come out of the backfield and do damage with their pass-catching ability. They have combined for 22 receptions for 211 yards.
Tennessee is not as good defensively as they were last season; they lost a lot of talent. Through five games, the Vols were giving up just 16.6 points per game, but in the most recent five games, they have given up 23.8 per game. Some of that occurred because there were no more Marshall's and Memphis's on the schedule. On the other hand, Tennessee held California to 18 points (most of that coming late in the game) and held Florida to 21 points.
Here is a look at Tennessee's defensive statistics for the season:
Scoring Defense: 21.2 points per game allowed ranks 8th in the SEC and 53rd in Division I-A
Vs. The Run: 148.7 yards allowed per game (5.0 avg) ranks 8th in the SEC and 82nd in Division I-A
Vs. The Pass: 176.3 yards allowed per game ranks 5th in the SEC and 29th in Division I-A. The Vols allow 57.2% of enemy passes to be completed and allow 7.3 yards per pass attempt. They have intercepted 5.8% of enemy passes.
Quarterback Sacks: Tennessee has recorded 16 sacks in 10 games which ranks 10th in the SEC and 87th overall.
Opp. Passing Efficiency: 124.3 ranks 8th in the SEC and 60th in Division I-A
Total Defense: 325.0 yards ranks 7th in the SEC and 54th in Division I-A
Tackles For Loss: The Volunteers have recorded 73 TFLs this season which ranks 1st in the SEC and 13th in Division I-A
Turnover Margin: +.3 per game ranks 3rd in the SEC and 47th in Division I-A
Left Defensive End Xavier Mitchell (6-2, 252 Jr.) will forever be remember as the player who made the outstanding stop on Air Force's two-point conversion attempt when Tennessee led 31-30 at the end of the game. For the season, Mitchell has 31 tackles, with eight for losses and four sacks. He leads the Vols with 13 QB Hurries.
Left Defensive Tackle Turk McBride (6-4, 275 Sr.) is the top tackler among the front four with 54. He picked up nine tackles last week after registering seven tackles against LSU.
Right Defensive Tackle Matt McGlothlin (6-0, 290 Sr.) shares the position with J.T. Mapu (6-3, 290 Jr.). The duo has teamed up to make 21 tackles this year trying to replace the injured All-SEC performer Justin Harrell.
This is an excellent trio that combines superior pass rushing with great pass defense.
Strong-side Linebacker Ryan Karl (6-0, 225 Jr.) has 50 tackles this year, many of which have come in pass defense. He has additionally batted away four passes, two of which fell in teammates' hands. Karl has registered seven tackles for loss.
Middle Linebacker Marvin Mitchell (6-3, 235 Sr.) leads the Volunteers with 82 tackles. He has 7.5 TFLs, one sack, and 11 QB Hurries. As a pass defender, he has intercepted one pass and batted away three others.
Weak-side Linebacker Jerod Mayo (6-2, 230 So.) has 80 tackles. He leads Tennessee with 12.5 TFLs and five sacks.
This group has done a surprisingly good job this year after suffering an early season-ending loss to Inky Johnson.
Left Cornerback Antwan Stewart (6-0, 195 Sr.) moved from safety to cornerback when Johnson went down against Florida. Stewart has three interceptions among his five passes defended. He earned Freshman All-SEC honors in 2003 as a cornerback.
Right Cornerback Jonathan Wade (6-0, 195 Sr.) leads the Vols and the conference with 13 passes defended, three of which have been interceptions. He earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors following the South Carolina game (he had an interception and two passes broken up).
Ricardo Kemp (5-11, 190 Fr.) has been seeing more action toward the end of the season. He is a true athlete with loads of potential. He is a weapon on the corner blitz.
Free Safety Jonathan Hefney (5-9, 185 Jr.) leads Tennessee with four interceptions to go along with 78 tackles. Against Air Force, he led the Vols with 17 tackles.
Strong Safety Demetrice Morley (6-2, 195 So.) is equally strong as a blitzer and a pass defender. He has registered six tackles behind the line, and he has two interceptions and four passes broken up.
Special teams have been a specialty in Knoxville since General Robert Neyland first arrived on campus. Tennessee always seems to have someone named Colquitt punting a football. The current Colquitt is Britton, a sophomore who is the son of Craig Colquitt. Britton is carrying on the great family tradition with a 45-yard average. This statistic hasn't been inflated with long kicks through the end zone. Only three of his punts have reached the end zone, and 38% of those punts have finished with the opponent starting inside their 20 yard line.
Place kicker James Wilhoit is 12 of 15 in field goal attempts this year. He is four of seven from beyond 40 yards with a long of 51.
Hefney owns a 14.3 yard punt return average with a long of 65 yards. Tennessee actually allows a high 11.6 yards per opponent punt return. That average is skewed by a small statistical sample. One of the 19 returns went for 89 yards and a touchdown; factor that one out, and the Vols give up just 7.4 yards per return.
Not having Ainge really hurt Tennessee. While they probably would have had a difficult time beating Arkansas with Peyton Manning returning for one game, Ainge could have made a difference in the LSU game.
The Volunteers are playing for bowl positioning. They believe they could still spend New Year's Day in Florida, but it would take a 9-3 record. They have the talent to do so, as long as Ainge can stay in the lineup.
For Comparison Purposes, here's how Vandy ranks in the offensive and defensive statistical categories. The first number in parentheses represents SEC rank and the second number represents D1A rank.
Scoring Offense: 23.1 ppg (8 & 69)
Rushing Offense: 153.3 yds per game (4 & 42) and 4.8 avg (5.4 w/out sacks)
Passing Offense: 209.8 yds per game (7 & 50)
56.2% completions and 7.4 yards per attempt
Passing Efficiency: 126.3 (9 & 59)
QB Sacks Allowed: 19 in 11 games (5 & 47)
Total Offense: 363.1 yds per game (5 & 43)
Turnover Margin: -1 in 11 games (7 & 66)
Scoring Defense: 22.3 ppg (9 & 60)
Rushing Defense: 155.4 yds per game (10 & 88) and 4.0 yards allowed per rush
Passing Defense: 190.1 yds per game (8 & 51)
Allows 58.9% completions and 8.0 yards per attempt (8 is not good)
Passing Efficiency Defense: 135.1 (9 & 86)
QB Sacks: 24 in 11 games (7 & 55)
Total Defense: 345.5 (10 & 72)
TFL: 60 in 11 games (8 & 69)