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Tennessee’s defense is improving at right time, as Vols face potent Missouri offense

Photo: Sarah Dunlap

Quick, name a strength of Tennessee’s Team 121.

If you’re struggling to come up with anything — except for maybe the punting of senior Trevor Daniel — you probably aren’t alone. But what if I told you a strength of the 2017 Vols is defense?

If you disagree, you probably aren’t alone on that point, either. The narrative for Tennessee’s defense was set in the Vols’ season opener, when Georgia Tech gashed UT for 535 rushing yards. Since that Labor Day game in Atlanta, however, Tennessee’s defense has been at times serviceable, at times good, and overall improved.

It’s hard to blame the segment of the Tennessee fan base that soured on defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and haven’t changed their mind. In 2016’s transitional season, the Vols’ defense was abysmal, finishing 11th in the SEC in total defense and giving up points by the bucket-load.

Between injuries and a staff that never gelled, Tennessee’s defense was worse against the run than any in school history, giving up over 230 yards per game on the ground. It was the second-worst defense in school history in total defense, giving up an average of almost 460 yards per game.

So when the Vols gave up a school-record 535 rushing yards to Georgia Tech, the pitchforks were out. And, as losses have mounted this season, they haven’t been put away.

But while Tennessee fans have been focused on their team’s inept offense, Shoop’s defense has been slowly molding itself into the likeness of his defenses at Vanderbilt and Penn State, where he never gave up more than 355 total yards in a game over the course of five seasons with James Franklin.

When Tennessee’s defense has struggled this season, it has generally been as games have progressed and the Vols’ lack of depth has caught up with them. Besides injuries — and those have played a significant role, especially in the linebacker corps — Tennessee’s offense has done its defense few favors this season. The Vols have won time of possession just twice in nine games this season, and rank 97th nationally in that category. UT is converting just 30 percent of its third down opportunities, which ranks 122nd nationally and means the Vols are missing opportunities to extend drives and keep their defense off the field.

Even against Alabama — the only game since Georgia Tech that saw Tennessee’s defense play poorly overall — the Vols’ effort on the defensive side of the ball was good enough in the first half. But the game’s wear and tear ultimately took its toll, and the Crimson Tide were imposing their will by late in the second quarter. The same could be said of UT’s loss to Georgia.

Despite those obstacles, Tennessee’s defense is improving. The Vols currently rank 58th nationally both in total defense and scoring defense. That’s not the sort of ranking that will allow you to compete for SEC championships, but it’s much better than UT’s defense ranked towards the beginning of the season. Throw out the Georgia Tech game, and UT’s defense would jump all the way to 34th in the national rankings. Throw out the Alabama game, and UT’s defense would rank 17th nationally.

Obviously this is the land of fantasy. Tennessee can no more disown its effort against Georgia Tech and Alabama than it can discount those games on its win-loss record. This isn’t middle school math class; you don’t get to “throw out” the lowest grade.

Still, when you consider that Tennessee’s defensive effort against everyone not named Georgia Tech or Alabama is good enough for the Vols’ defense to be in the Top 20 nationally, that’s enough to question the narrative of an ill-performing defense — especially when the injuries are taken into account. We can probably consider that Georgia Tech was an aberration, and Alabama is Alabama.

Tennessee’s defense has played well enough to beat three of the teams the Vols have lost to this season — Florida’s last-second touchdown not withstanding — and that should have UT fans second-guessing their assessment of Shoop. To this point, Vols fans are ready for wholesale coaching changes, though some might be willing to give runningbacks coach Robert Gillespie the benefit of the doubt. But Shoop is starting to show why he was considered a home-run hire by Butch Jones.

That brings us to this weekend’s trip to Columbia, and what is essentially a must-win game for Tennessee’s bowl hopes. Obviously the Vols have one more loss to give, but with LSU still lurking on the schedule, it’s best to not take chances. With Tennessee’s offensive play as horrid as ever, and with the Vols potentially down to a third-string quarterback, their best chance of winning might be their defense.

So can UT’s defense slow down Missouri’s high-flying offense enough to give the Vols a chance? The Tigers are coming off a shellacking of Florida that saw them put up 45 points on a respected Gator defense. Clearly the Vols must fare better than that, as they cannot afford to get into a shootout with Mizzou.

Missouri’s offense is cranking, ranked 15th nationally in total offense and 22nd in scoring offense. It is an offense that has clicked in the second half of the season, averaging 55 points per game as the Tigers have won three consecutive games to go from Barry Odom’s hot-seat talk to bowl speculation.

The Tigers’ offense was expected to be prolific this season, and put up 72 points in the season-opener against Missouri State. But the Tigers were limited to 13 points by South Carolina, three points by Purdue and 14 points by Auburn — all losses. Since that point, Missouri has averaged 45.4 points per game. And if we play the same game with the Tigers’ offense that we played with the Vols’ defense, there’s only one team in America scoring more points.

In other words, Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) will be a high-stakes test to see just how far the Vols’ defense has come. Slowing down — or, dare we say? Shutting down — Missouri’s offense won’t be enough to save Butch Jones’ job, but it might be enough to cause Tennessee fans to feel differently about Bob Shoop, and could move the Vols closer to bowl eligibility.

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