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Graphing the Tide at Tennessee: too many points, too many penalties

A few huge passes defined this one. Obviously.

Alabama v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

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I don’t talk about penalties in this column often. In fact, most penalties get filtered out of these analyses, as we’re trying to talk about real performance on real plays, without the spotty noise you get from, say an iffy PI penalty that results in a 15-yard gain (what would normally be called “an explosive play”). It’s just hard to net out what these penalties mean about an offense’s performance, from an efficiency/explosiveness perspective.

But there were a lot of penalties on Saturday, especially for the Tide, including some game-wrenching ones that you have to question (speaking of iffy Pass Interference calls).

So, penalties aren’t shown in this analysis, but one way to think about penalties’ hidden presence in these charts is what that play would have looked like without the penalty. For stuff like PI, it’s presumably an incomplete pass, so an “unsuccessful pass play” that would drop that team’s average SR and XR by a small amount. Penalties can also (obviously, painfully) extend drives to give teams more opportunities for success (but also more opportunities otherwise).

Team Success Rates over time (cumulative)

So, Tennessee’s offense was great against the Tide and posted high efficiencies all game; but if you need to mentally account for the penalties, imagine a few points shaved off their total line (and a few points off the scoreboard). That puts them close to the Tide offense’s SRs, which makes sense in a close, high-scoring game with only one defensive TD.

At least the Vols had the decency to post higher Success Rates in their victory than the Tide were able to muster, which is a decency often not experienced in an Alabama loss. There were some garbage penalties and apparently-game-defining mistakes in this one, but it wasn’t the tom-foolery or weird-bounce-ry we’ll see in close games (e.g., the near-loss to Texas A&M last week was fully of silly stuff that almost saw the less efficient team win, and Auburn home games are often like this).

But I was surprised that the obviously-explosive Vols offense actually didn’t post a very high Explosiveness Rate; we can dig into that better in the Play Map below.

Play Map: Yards and Result by Play

The Tennessee version of this chart is kinda bizarre. The Vols offense was having a solid game with successful-to-explosive plays early, with scores to go with them. Things slowed down in the second quarter to some degree, but they were efficient even without the explosiveness component.

And then the second half came, and with it a Tide comeback! You wouldn’t think it given the highlight reel, but the Tide defense did something at halftime to adjust, as the Vol’s play map flattens out a bit. Unfortunately, there were also a few game-breaking explosive catches in there, and that’s the game.

Flipping over to the Tide chart, you’d think we’ve have one this one. Look at all of that healthy crimson across the board, with a bunch of explosive activity, to boot! The again-Bryce-Young-led offense was indeed more often explosive than the Vols, with plenty of 15-35 yard catches, plus a few explosive rushes to boot. But here’s where that “Avg Extra Yards” line is interesting: Alabama posted a modest +1.16 average extra yards for the game, while Tennessee posted a +3.23 by the final tick. That’s a big difference that tells how successful and how explosive the Vols’ plays were, and not just how often they were successful or explosive.

SR, XR, and Play Count by Drive

Flipping between these drive charts, I’d say the most telling aspect is the number of drives each team got: Alabama shows 11 drives here, and the Vols 14. With the muffed punt disaster and a well-played defer strategy by the Vols, they just got more opportunities.

And the Vols did plenty with those opportunities, showing high efficiencies on 8 of those drives, with explosive plays in nearly all of them. That 4th Vols drive was a nice change in the story for Tide fans, having them finally snuffed in a 3-and-out ... except, yeah, that muffed punt. They picked up where they left off and got a touchdown on a 100% SR from there, so there goes the momentum shift.

Alabama’s chart is fine, showing some impressive long drives (5 drives with double-digit play counts, plus a drive of 8 plays). But there were some missed opportunities early, plus that sad final drive: if that 40% SR 10-play drive had just one more successful play in the mix, this column would likely have a different tone today. As it is, I’m cranky.

Success and Explosiveness by Quarter

The Vols came out hot, and then had a “bookends” kind of game, coming short of the tide on both SR and XR through the 2nd and 3rd quarters before waking up again in the 4th and winning the dang thing.

Success and Explosiveness by Play Type

This isn’t something I expected — maybe I should say “we,” even — going into this game. The Vols were notably more efficient rushing the ball than the Tide, though slightly less explosive; and Bryce Young’s pass offense was actually slightly more efficient than, and nearly as explosive as, the Hendon Hooker-led Vols passing game.

Success and Explosiveness by Down

For a while I thought we were doing the usual “Bryce Young 3rd down show,” where he digs the offense out of doo-doo after a middling few downs. But it’s not really how it played out, as Tennessee actually eked out the 3rd down advantage.

But those 1st downs! I had to double-check these numbers because this chart looks so strange, but literally all of Tennessee’s explosive plays were on 1st down. That just seems like good play-calling to me with varied options on the table; otherwise I’m not sure how to explain this drastic effect. Heck, I guess if the Tide defense had a few more 1st down disruptions we wouldn’t be talking about this game so much.

Success and Explosiveness in the Red Zone

It was a close game, so the Red Zone was again meaningful. This wasn’t a drastic effect, as the Vols also outperformed the Tide’s efficiency in the rest of the field, too. But in retrospect I stand by my anger at the Tide kicking a 21-yard field goal (about as short an attempt as is possible) early in the second quarter. Some Red Zone aggressiveness (and, yes, risk) there could’ve given us some butterfly effect into a victory.

Success and Explosiveness by Distance to go

The Tide’s short- and middling-yardage performance was good in this one, including from that tricky 7-9 yard distance. The problem was on longer plays, which I suppose echoes the 1st down gap — Tide meh, Vols stupendous — that we looked at earlier.

Rushing and Passing Success (cumulative)

Again I’m surprised as the emphasis on passing that the Tide needed to amek this a competitive game. With Bryce Young back under center, we passed our way into a high-scoring one, with several runs of 4-5 successful passes in a row.

The Tide running game was in the pits early, with four unsuccessful rushes to start the game, but things climbed quickly and the running game was serviceable (not great) as a balancer through the remainder of the game. It’s just too bad that rushing line ended so early, with the Tide leaning (unsuccessfully, at the end) on the pass in their final nine plays of the game.

Meanwhile, the highlight-reel Vols passing offense looks inconsistent in this chart, with a second-half drift into good-but-not great territory in terms of efficiency. The key for them was a sprinkling of absolutely huge pass plays to make this efficiency line apparently irrelevant. Mixed in was their own surprisingly-effective balancer, with a rush game that was posting 23 odds on success throughout the game. I guess a scary passing game opens up plenty for the tailbacks and a mobile QB.

Rushing rate (cumulative)

Another surprising one coming out of this game: the Vols ran much more often than the Tide, using it effectively to open things up in the passing game. Balance, folks. The Tide leaned on Bryce and barely mustered anything beyond a 45% Rush Rate. By the end we’d slipped into a mid-30s Rush Rate, which in retrospect was probably a bad sign.

Top Rushers

I honestly thought Jahmyr Gibbs’ line would be better here. He was basically our rushing game, but only posted an average 41.6% SR. Credit him for making something out of little a few times, and for a few explosive rushes, but we really could’ve used one of his patented game-breakers in this one. (The Vols rushers all come out splendidly in this chart, and I don’t want to talk about it.)

Top Passers

The discrepancies we saw in the Play Map really stand out here, with famed QB Hendon Hooker not needing to accrue that many attempts to rack up enough yards and points to take down the Tide. If you’re like me, you squint and pencil in a “2” in that Interceptions line, given that he threw a pass into double coverage on 4th down and got absolutely bailed out by some over-zealous reffing. • Bryce looks pretty good in his chart. More short (unsuccessful) catches than usual, but with a 56% SR on a lot of attempts. It’s enough to win most games.

Top Receivers

Kobe Prentice was the first target out of the Tide, and racked up the most catches. That’s a potentially exciting development seeing as he’s a speedy option that may change up our somewhat uninspiring receivers lineup in 2022. It was nice to see some other new-ish names out there too, like Isaiah Bond and JoJo Earle getting explosive catches. Ja’Corey Brooks seem to Jekyll and Hyde between these games but was a solid option in this one again.

And speaking of up and down performances: Cam Latu had a game! I was going to put Bryce as the feature image this week, but I just changed it to Latu — the only photo I could find of him from this game, actually — given his 50% XR on six catches, including a TD.

It’s kinda nuts looking at this receiving charts and thinking that the orange team won, but that’s just the stats-breaking nature of those explosive plays, I guess. You couldn’t tell a difference between Cam Latu Jalin Hyatt in this SR/XR roundup, but the latter was catching stuff waaaaay downfield. And that’s the game.

It was an extremely frustrating game, and one that the Tide played well enough to win in. I suppose we were due one of these after a season or two of close calls, but I would’ve expected (and, I think, preferred) this result in the Texas game rather than this one.

Roll Tide, anyway.