Tennessee’s defense was historically bad in 2016. Under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop, the Vols struggled to an 11th place finish in the SEC in total defense, giving up points by the bucket-load, particularly late in the season.
Injuries and a staff that never gelled were blamed for the issues, with the expectation being that Shoop — a much celebrated hire for Butch Jones after five successful seasons with James Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State — would have the defense improved in 017.
Until Monday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. Georgia Tech’s new quarterback, TaQuon Marshall, rushed for 249 yards and five touchdowns to nearly lead the Yellow Jackets to an upset win over the Vols. Tennessee stopped Marshall when it mattered most, on a two-point conversion try in the second overtime, to escape with the season-opening win.
Given the Tennessee defense’s historically bad performance on Monday, after an historically-bad season in 2016, the question deserves to be asked: Is Bob Shoop on the hot seat? Should he be?
It’s rare for college coaches to fire their coordinators in the middle of the season. This isn’t the NFL, where midseason chopping block sessions are more common. Notre Dame did it in 2016, bidding farewell to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into a season that saw the Fighting Irish start 1-3, giving up 50 points in a loss to Texas while also losing to Michigan State and Duke.
But Brian Kelly showed VanGorder the door to save his own hide, amid increased scrutiny. As bad as Tennessee’s defense was on Monday, the Vols still won the game, which dialed down the pressure on Jones, at least for the time being.
You can’t help but wonder, though, how many more games Tennessee will be able to win this season without significant improvements on the defensive side of the ball.
Last year’s Tennessee defense was the worst the school has ever had in terms of defending the run, giving up just over 230 yards per game on the ground.
On Monday night, as a new season debuted in Atlanta, the Vols gave up a school-record 535 yards on the ground to the Rambling Wreck.
Last year’s Tennessee team was the second-worst in school history in terms of total defense, giving up an average of almost 460 yards per game.
On Monday night, the Vols gave up 655 yards to Georgia Tech.
To be fair, Tennessee was without two of its starting linebackers in Monday’s game. Middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. will miss the season with a knee injury, and strongside linebacker Austin Smith was out Monday, also with a knee injury.
But, to be fair, there was supposed to be a significant talent gap between the Vols and the Yellow Jackets. Over the past four seasons, Tennessee’s average recruiting class has ranked 10th in the nation. Georgia Tech’s average class over the same time span has ranked 48th nationally.
As long as we’re being fair, it is well documented that the flexbone option is difficult to prepare for. Defenses rarely see it, and teams that have mastered the scheme typically feature overwhelming rushing attacks.
Georgia Tech proved that last season, averaging 256 yards per game, which was good enough to be ranked No. 8 nationally in rushing offense. The year before that, the Rambling Wreck was even better: 299 yards per game on the ground, which ranked No. 6 nationally.
But in Monday’s game, Tennessee gave up more than double what Georgia Tech averaged last season, and the Yellow Jackets were without a preseason All-ACC runningback and were breaking in a new quarterback. And all but one of the Yellow Jackets’ opponents last season lacked the luxury of having an entire offseason to prepare for Georgia Tech’s dynamic rushing attack.
Shoop’s track record at his two stops prior to Knoxville speaks for itself. He was a good defensive coordinator for Franklin. But something is obviously amiss at Tennessee.
In hindsight, a column by Jimmy Hyams prior to December’s Music City Bowl is enlightening. Hyams wrote that Shoop said he had simplified the defense over the course of the season.
“He said at previous stops, he could call two or three plays in the huddle and utilize one depending on the offensive formation. He couldn’t do that at UT, he said,” Hyams wrote. “Does that mean the players at UT weren’t as smart as they were at Penn State or Vanderbilt? Or does that mean he was dealing with less experienced players — due to injuries — who weren’t ready to grasp a diverse system? Perhaps a little of both.”
The injuries not-withstanding, something was amiss on the defensive side of the ball last season, and it has apparently carried over into 2017, if the season opener in Atlanta is any indication.
Consider this: In five seasons combined at Vanderbilt and Penn State, Shoop’s defenses never gave up more than 355 total yards in a game.
Yet in his last seven regular season games against FBS opponents at Tennessee, Shoop’s defense has given up 592 yards (Texas A&M), 594 yards (Alabama), 325 yards (South Carolina), 635 yards (Kentucky), 720 yards (Missouri), 608 yards (Vanderbilt) and 655 yards (Georgia Tech).
That’s an average of 593 yards per game during that stretch. According to NCAA.com’s statistical archive from last season, the team that was dead-last in the nation in total defense — a hapless Kansas team, which ranked 127th out of 127 teams — gave up an average of 561 yards per game over the course of the season.
That’s worse than bad, worse than abysmal, worse than horrid.
Particularly noteworthy has been Tennessee’s run defense during that stretch. The Vols have given up an average of 359 yards per game on the ground since that hail mary miracle in Athens last season, with opponents surpassing the 400-yard mark four times in those seven games. Only twice in the seven-game stretch has Tennessee held its opponent to fewer than 200 yards on the ground. And one of those was Vanderbilt, which scorched the Vols’ secondary for more than 400 yards through the air while rushing for 192 yards.
Tennessee’s scoring defense has been just as abysmal during that stretch, giving up an average of 40 points per game — 39.6 points per game if you aren’t rounding up. The only teams at the FBS level who gave up more points across the 2016 season as a whole were Tulsa, North Texas, Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Texas Tech, New Mexico State, SMU and Kansas, in that order.
In the interest of being as fair as possible, we can remove Texas A&M and Alabama from the equation, and the numbers are just as bad. Tennessee still gave up an average of 593 yards per game and 37 points per game — and that’s without an SEC champion Alabama on the schedule, without an eight-win Texas A&M team on the schedule. That’s against teams that finished last season with win-loss records of 7-5, 6-6, 6-6, 6-6 and 4-8.
The highest-ranked offense of any of those five teams in 2016? Georgia Tech, who ranked 80th out of 127 teams nationally in total offense, averaging 378 yards per game. Kentucky ranked 89th, South Carolina ranked 99th, Vanderbilt ranked 116th and Missouri ranked 124th.
So where does Tennessee go from here? It clearly isn’t fair to write the story of the 2017 season after just one game, however bad that game may have been. Even if Butch Jones — who has followed Brian Kelly’s lead in choosing teams to coach — decided to follow Kelly’s lead in his approach to solving his defensive dilemma, Shoop clearly isn’t going anywhere after Week 1.
And it may be a few weeks before we truly get a sense of whether this defense is maturing.
Indiana State is an FCS foe, and amassed just 293 yards of offense in a season-opening loss to Eastern Illinois last week. Then it’s off to Gainesville for Tennessee, which will face a Florida offense that has been putrid of late. The Gators managed just 192 yards of offense — and zero touchdowns — in Saturday’s season-opening loss to Michigan, after ranking 111th in the nation in total offense last season. Following that game in The Swamp, Tennessee will return home to face FBS newcomer UMass, which is coming off a lackluster 2-10 season, before finally hosting Jacob Eason, Nick Chubb and the Georgia Bulldogs, which will be the best offense the Vols have faced to date.
But what happens if Tennessee pulls a Missouri (the Tigers embarrassed themselves against FCS foe Missouri State in the season-opener, giving up 492 yards of offense) against one of these next three offenses? After all, UMass ranked 65th nationally in total offense a year ago — a higher ranking than any of the last five opponents the Vols have faced. And the Minutemen played several SEC teams tough last season, which could cause Jones and his Vols some unrest heading into the return home from Gainesville.
And if the unthinkable were to happen? If Tennessee were to find itself in a close game in the fourth quarter against an opponent like UMass because its defense is unable to get off the field? At what point does Bob Shoop’s seat start to really get hot?