IF YOU’RE BITCHING ABOUT THE COACHING AGAINST FLORIDA, YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT ABOUT FOOTBALL
First a disclaimer, Butch Jones and company didn’t coach a perfect game. In fact, they may have made many tactical errors. However, it is impossible to critique their effort at this point, due to the huge talent disadvantages that they are trying to overcome.
Like it or not, football is inherently a game about numbers and matchups. Is the quarterback a threat to run, so that you can hold a defender in place without blocking him? Can one team force another to have less than an ideal amount of defenders in the box? And maybe most importantly, do you have the talent at the skill positions to win one on one matchups? Unfortunately for Tennessee, the answer to these questions on both sides of the ball favored Florida to a massive degree. I’ll discuss these questions in the order posed.
The advantage of a running quarterback
Butch Jones will likely face a lot of criticism for starting Nathan Peterman over Justin Worley, given Peterman’s abysmal performance. However, Tennessee needed to take a chance on having a quarterback that could make some plays with his feet in order to offset other disadvantages in the game.
Florida having a quarterback that could make plays with his legs exacerbated advantages that they already had. Tennessee’s backside defensive players couldn’t pursue as hard on runs in order to make sure that the quarterback didn’t keep the ball. Pass rushers had to be aware of the threat of the run, which causes hesitation. When the quarterback did scramble, he could either pick up yards or hit receivers that came open due to defenders having to leave them to pursue him.
This is not to say that an offense has to have a mobile quarterback to be successful. However, Tennessee doesn’t have any of the other pieces that can often lead to numbers advantages, such as a receiver that requires double coverage, a tight end that requires a safety to cover him, or a running back that can consistently make the first man miss.
Looking at the numbers matchup in the box
Florida was able to gain an advantage on both sides of the ball, due to their ability to have favorable numbers matchups in the box.
Offensively, Florida could force Tennessee to play a two safety look against a full house backfield with two receivers split wide or a two back and one tight end set. Tennessee’s coaches were justifiably scared of being beat deep, so they consistently had a cornerback playing the wide receiver with safety help over the top. This leaves Tennessee with seven men in the box, trying to stop a Florida run game that has eight men in the box. For the most part, this decision worked. Tennessee did a good job preventing the big plays and won enough battles upfront to stop Florida a fair amount of the time. However, advantages in other areas and fatigue caught up over time and allowed Florida to slowly pull away from the Tennessee defense.
Defensively, Florida could play man to man on Tennessee’s receivers, leaving them with an advantage against Tennessee. When the numbers of defensive players and offensive players is the same in the box, the offense simply cannot block everyone. When combined with the fact that Tennessee’s backs are not good enough to get yardage against Florida when defenders are unblocked, Tennessee had little chance to be successful offensively going into this game.
Winning the one on one matchups in space
It is impossible for an offense to block every player on defense. In order to consistently move the football a team needs to have skill players that can win one on one matchups. Tennessee simply does not have this at this time, while Florida does.
As previously discussed, Tennessee’s receivers couldn’t consistently beat man coverage, nor could they catch short passes and make the first man miss (on the rare occasions that said passes were accurate). Tennessee’s backs also could not be counted on to consistently win a matchup with any player along Florida’s front seven. This is nothing other than a recipe for disaster offensively. There was not a single skill player for Tennessee that had an advantage over his Florida counterpart, forcing the Florida defense to account for that player with more than one man. This is a defensive coordinator’s dream, because of the simplicity that you can use to contain the opposing offense.
Some will insist that Tennessee should be more conservative on offense in this type of situation. Bring in a fullback and run straight at them, but this isn’t sound strategy.
By splitting a man out (even when Florida is in man coverage), the defensive player covering that man is “blocked” for the purposes of inside runs. If Tennessee brings in a fullback type that isn’t more athletic than Florida’s linebackers, then Florida can simply put another man in the box that has to be blocked on running plays. The more men that have to be blocked, the less margin for error you have. Thus, spreading Florida out and only needing blocks from our best blockers is the right thing to do.
Bottom Line From Yesterday
The talent gap meant that Tennessee had to play near perfect football and get more breaks to have any shot at winning. Faulting a coach for having an untalented team play less than perfect is asinine, as is second guessing decisions that ultimately wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game. Florida’s talent advantage made the outcome very close to inevitable. The only real question was the degree of the beating that Tennessee was going to take.
Outside of the offensive line, Tennessee does not have a single player that would start for Florida. Think about that for a second, NOT A SINGLE PLAYER. Very little of that is at the hands of the current staff, given that they have only had one class, which they had less than two months to recruit and was built previously by the worst coach in school history.
Given this talent disparity and lack of playmakers on offense, the staff did a commendable job. The team (outside of Nathan Peterman) didn’t look intimidated, nor did they quit. Intimidation and effort have been issues at Tennessee for the better part of ten years in this game, so it’s nice to see that it wasn’t today in what should be the biggest disparity in talent that Butch Jones ever faces against Florida.
The Silver Lining
Butch Jones and staff undoubtedly knew the odds that were stacked against them today. This is very likely the least talented group of skill players that Tennessee has ever had, and contrary to some people’s dated opinions, games are won just as much (if not more) from the skill positions as from the trenches. However, Butch refused to go into the game and play to keep it close. He took some chances (starting a new quarterback, consistently blitzing off the edge to help in the run game, and having defensive backs jump routes to name a few) and tried to win the football game. He also refused to bail on his system in an effort to keep it close, preferring to believe that what he does will work. In the long run, these types of decisions will pay dividends and instill a confidence at Tennessee that has been lacking for a long time.
If Tennessee can get a quarterback to step up and show something as this year progresses, then bright days are ahead. Alabama is undoubtedly just as bad of a matchup for Tennessee as Oregon or Florida, but the rest of the teams on the schedule are not. Tennessee can compete with Georgia and South Carolina and has a realistic shot at winning any other game on the schedule.
Looking forward even further, it appears that Butch is poised to add a lot of talent this year at the skill positions on both sides of the ball. Although Tennessee will be young, there will be more athletic ability to work with next year. Certainly the offensive line is a concern, but having players talented enough to make a man miss can hide some deficiencies there and allow for bug plays that currently aren’t likely to happen for Tennessee on offense. Similarly, having players on defense that can play man coverage or run down running backs will make a defensive coach look much smarter than any scheme in the world.
In the end, Tennessee’s success will be determined the same as every other team in the SEC, by the talent that’s brought in to play. In that regard Tennessee appears to be on the right track with Butch Jones.