Tennessee Volunteers Preview (by Smitty)

Here are some numbers that have relevance to the current state of Tennessee football:

25: The total margin of defeat for the 2015 Vols in four losses
9: The number of losses in a row to Alabama
11: The number of losses in a row to Florida
2007: Last SEC title game appearance
1998: Last SEC and national title
18: Returning starters for the 2016 season

The 2015 Tennessee football season is being remembered for all the near misses, and as a signal, the program is starting to get back to being an SEC powerhouse.

The first half of the season featured two massive choke jobs in the fourth quarter to Oklahoma and Florida. Then on October 10, the Vols were looking a 24-3 deficit to Georgia, and the possibility of losing five games, right in the face. Butch Jones’s seat was as hot as it ever has been and he decided to be aggressive. The Vols picked up two huge fourth down conversions and recovered a fumble before the half.  The season, maybe even the fate of Butch and the program,  turned around.

The 2016 season has arrived with something not seen on Rocky Top in almost a decade: Expectations. The Vols are a heavy preseason favorite to win the east and are getting mentioned as playoff contenders. On paper the Vols return their most talented team since Phillip Fulmer was coach.

Tennessee is led by senior QB Josh Dobbs and will be flanked by RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The offensive line is the most experienced and talented group Jones has had. Josh Malone, Juan Jennings, Josh Smith and Preston Williams are the best receivers, and all four can take it to the house at any time. Ethan Wolf is as good of a tight end as there is in the conference.

Dobbs has to show he can complete passes down the field. Teams are going to sell out on the run until Dobbs can make them pay. So far, he has been unable to do so in his career.

After failing to get off the field on late in games  against Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama, Butch Jones decided to make a change and brought in Stu’s old buddy Bob Shoop.

Shoop inherits an experienced unit led by CB Cam Sutton, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and DE Derek Barnett. All three could be first round draft picks. The real weakness to this group will be at safety, where the Vols will replace two starters. However, there are some talented guys in the mix to start. There are some depth concerns at linebacker too. If Maybin or Darrin Kirkland get hurt, it could change the season quick.

Keep an eye on DT Kahlil McKenzie, CB Rashaan Gaulden and DE Jonathan Kongbo. These guys could have a great year.

Special Teams:
Trevor Daniel may be the best punter in the SEC. Aaron Medley may be the most inconsistent kicker in the SEC. Evan Berry is the best kick returner in the country.

On paper, this is the best team in the east, with Georgia close behind. The Vols have three games they should win before Florida comes to Knoxville.  Then Tennessee runs a gauntlet of Florida, at UGA, at Texas A&M and back to Knoxville for Bama. After the bye the Vols close at South Carolina, Tenn Tech, Kentucky, Mizzou and Vandy.

Best case scenario: The Vols beat Florida and Bama and represent the east at 11-1. They beat LSU and make some noise in the playoff. Butch turns the corner and pulls in a haul of recruits.

Worst case scenario: Butch gets conservative against Florida and loses late. The team suffers key injuries and drops four in a row. Jones and company can’t turn the corner and lose out in recruiting.

One man’s worthless prediction: I think Tennessee wins the east with big wins over Florida and Georgia. They take losses to Bama and A&M. They lose to LSU in Atlanta, but go to the Sugar Bowl where they beat Oklahoma 45-10.

111 thoughts on “Tennessee Volunteers Preview (by Smitty)”

  1. JC’d: sansho, I only produced specific Rfield numbers because Nocahoma was incredulous that a player could give away 40 runs in the outfield. Granted, those numbers might be overestimates, but they might be underestimates, too. Having watched Adam Dunn play in the field, I would not be surprised if he gave away 43 runs with his glove in a season. Frequently, when outfielders don’t get to balls, they become doubles or triples instead of outs. Take one of those every 4-5 games, add in a booted grounder here and there and a few bloop singles that drop in, and you’ve got a mess of runs. I realize the problems with defensive metrics, and you’ve done a good job of raising a few of them. I don’t disagree with anything you said.

  2. Re: Matt Kemp’s mysterious drop in walk rate in 2016: he’s swinging at a lot more pitches out of the strike zone this season, but his swing rate on in-zone pitches and his contact rates on in- and out-of-zone pitches have remained constant. For his career up through 2014, Kemp usually swung at 30% of pitches out of the zone; that went up to 35% in 2015 and 40% in 2016.
    Basically, Kemp has been more aggressive at swinging at bad pitches, and his walk rate has cratered. Hopefully it’s a reversible development.

  3. I hope it’s because Kemp became uninspired and lost his discipline. That is reversible. I hope it’s not that his bat slowed down, so he’s starting his swing earlier to compensate. That will probably just get worse.

  4. I’d love to know what the best offer they got for Jim Johnson was. He starts earning additional, incentive-based money with his very next appearance ($70K, and then an additional $70K for every fifth appearance after that), so I was sure they were going to trade him.

  5. @Rob from end of previous thread…totally agree with they way you put the Kemp thing in context. If we get the payroll up well over $100M then Kemp is a lessor piece rather than a key thing we’re depending on.

    It’s hard to get into that mindset at this point, because we just haven’t seen it yet. Most of my knee-jerk reaction is from the perpetual recycling of bad-money that’s been going on for more than 5 years. I have no doubt that Kemp is also going to be bad-money before 3 years are up. Let’s hope the next year is great for him.

  6. So here are Butch Jones’ best games since coming to Knoxville before the ’13 season:

    – Overtime loss to #6 Georgia (Todd Gurley and Malcolm Mitchell out with injuries, Keith Marshall AND Justin Scott-Wesley AND Michael Bennett tear various things on the WW1 trench UT calls a football turf)
    – Win over #11 South Carolina when Connor Shaw *also* got a bum knee on the Neyland Stadium turf

    – Nothing, really.

    – 2OT loss to eventual playoff participant Oklahoma. Womp, womp.
    – Yakked away a two-score lead on eventual SEC East champ Florida. Womp, womp.
    – Lead Bama late but lost anyway. Womp, womp.
    – ANOTHER Georgia player tears an ACL in Neyland Stadium and Tennessee comes back to beat the Dawgs.
    – Drilled Northwestern, who was a good team record-wise if not necessarily per the advanced stats.

    Take away UT’s crappy field hurting players and there’s no there there. Tennessee has experience where it counts, but so far that experience has been good for a small number of BS wins and various close calls. We’ll see. I think Butch is a particularly lousy gameday coach and have always been amused that the Vols got rid of a guy (Dooley) who actually beat him easily head-to-head the season prior.

  7. @7

    I agree Butch has made some interesting in game decisions, but he is way better than Dooley.

  8. Gotcha, John. Sorry for the misunderstanding. It’ll never happen, but I would love (as krussell brought up) for several people to each look at the plays in Kemp’s area over the rest of the season and tally up what they think his impact is based on their own understanding. This is an issue we’ve discussed for years, and finally we’d be generating some data.

  9. Kemp’s metrics this year don’t look nearly so bad as they did a few years ago. I’ve been thinking about doing a multi-variate correlation on team dWAR, oWAR, and pitching WAR vs exp wins for the last 5 years as a quick and dirty to assess whether one is overrated or underrated. Just real busy these days. One problem I anticipate is that the way bref calculates pitching WAR, I believe gives them credit for having good fielding behind them. They may count a DRS twice, for the fielder and the pitcher, in other words.

  10. @11

    Matt Kemp
    it might be best to regard as a temp
    his numbers so conducive to stricture
    suggest he play in only the occasional fixture.

    I too will be doing a multi-variate correlation but in my case it will cover the last thirty years. Counting DRS twice? The heavens are parting!

  11. Smitty,

    If by “big win” you mean “big for the program,” then I can see what you are saying about Georgia.

    But a Kirby team won’t lose by more than 14 to anything less than a true National Championship contender.

  12. Smitty.
    Fantastic preview.
    Just one question, please.
    Whatever happened to that quarterback you wrote about last year – the one that was afraid to throw the ball? He’s been keeping me awake.

  13. @13

    UGA is the biggest unknown to me. QB issues can really hold you back. Will the RBs be good to go? What will Kirby’s in-game adjustments be like?

    I could see UGA going 11-1 or 7-5.

  14. @5

    Keeping Johnson doesn’t make sense on three levels: the escalators, the missed return that is now gone, and the innings that won’t go to pitchers with long-term value. How bad could those offers have been?

  15. I am very fearful that Florida’s winning streak against UT may come to an end this year. I was in attendance for that fourth quarter come back last year. That was one for the ages. “HE’S GOING TO SCORE! HE’S GOING TO SCORE! HE’S GOING TO SCORE!” That will be etched in my brain forever.

  16. @10 isn’t this exactly the description of Defensive Runs Saved (which is the fielding component of bref’s WAR)?

  17. It could be that we had a trade in the works for Johnson and the other team pulled out late and left us too little time to get another one worked out. But yeah, senseless to keep him. Let’s run him through waivers ASAP

  18. @19, basically yes, but DRS and UZR both come from the batted ball data provided by BIS, which is still tracked by humans and subject to the same human interpretation issues we get with official scorers. It also doesn’t correctly factor in positioning/shifts.

    Most of my skepticism would go away if these metrics were using the StatCast data. The front offices have these metrics, but we don’t. Thus we don’t know how big or small the divergence really is.

  19. To follow up on why I think it would be cool to just single out Matt Kemp and track his every move…I think we could come to a consensus about each ball hit in his area and that would be more accurate than the data that comes from the guys tracking every play of every game and probably wanting to stab their eyes out after doing it for a few weeks.

    That may or may not be a true assumption. I’d like to test it though.

    Also, we can absolutely track the impact of the plays he doesn’t make. We’ll know how many runs actually scored, rather than using run-expectation averages.

    Over a huge sample-size I’m sure the actual and expected would converge. A single season isn’t a huge sample size, or even really a sufficient one.

  20. DRS and UZR both come from the batted ball data provided by BIS, which is still tracked by humans and subject to the same human interpretation issues we get with official scorers.

    Weren’t you literally just calling for us to watch Kemp and perform similar subjective observations?

    It also doesn’t correctly factor in positioning/shifts.

    Pretty sure it does adjust for positioning and shifts.

  21. We could take a vote on the contentious plays and give them more scrutiny, because we’re not trying to do this at scale.

  22. How will discrepancies amongst the congregation about whether or not a ball was catchable be handled? Will there be a vote? And if no clear winner emerges from this, will there be two-man sack races held on consecutive Sundays until a champion is crowned?

  23. We will break ties by assuming he should have caught it. Let’s not give him the benefit of any doubts.

  24. This is like saying you don’t like the way Toyota makes cars, so you’re gonna do it yourself. But you don’t actually know anything about engineering, and your homemade car explodes in your driveway.

  25. The process would be similar, but the apportionment of blame/credit and degree of damage caused/prevented would be decided upon individually. Over time, the range of results would be revealing, I think.

  26. Lol, in the end I want the “true” value of how bad Kemp is in the field. Can he really cost us 40 runs?

    I’m going to prepare spreadsheets for us to track this game in and game out. This will virtually ensure that he gets traded in the offseason in a bad contract swap for Pujols.

  27. Apologies in advance to those who thought this whole OF defense debate ended with Heyward’s departure. This could get ugly…..

  28. Kemp only cost the Padres 6 runs in 100 games in LF. That’s not a disaster. The main reason he is not valued higher in WAR is that he makes so many outs. It’s hard to slug enough to make up for a .285 OBP

  29. I wonder if Aybar would clear waivers. The Dodgers wouldn’t want the Giants to get him, would they?

  30. Not trading JJ is definitely a head scrather – especially considering that MLB seemed to be doing us a favor in voting Johnson player of the week last week. I guess 4 saves was impressive, but a closer winning this by means of pitching 4 innings was surprising to me.

    Also, with Teheran on the DL that leaves us with Folty, Jenkins and ?, ? and ? for our starting 5.

  31. Matt Kemp: “I’ve never really played in a baseball town before. So, I am excited about that.”

  32. @46

    LOL…there’s no way he freaking said that.

    Well, he’s in for something of a rude awakening. Maybe the opening of the new stadium will go well and he will only be mildly disappointed instead of spectacularly.

  33. I, for one, would enjoy a statistical analysis of Kemp’s play in the field whilst an Atlanta Brave.

  34. Toss me in with the camp that thinks there’s no way he actually costs his team 40 runs over the course of a season BTW. Particularly if he’s playing left field.

  35. @7

    They only won those games because the turf sucks? Really? I suppose you know for a fact they’d have lost if the turf didn’t suck. I don’t suppose you’ve also given any thought to the fact that the turf sucks for them, too.

  36. Joey Gallo has been optioned back to AAA after a 1 for 14 start.

    Not to be outdone by him, Alex Bregman has started his major league career with a 1 for 28 slump.

    Andrew Benintindi has been called up by Boston. Let’s see if he’ll do better than those fellows.

  37. The Rangers should consider trading Gallo for Evan Gattis. The Astros are in the enviable position of already having Evan Gattis to cover up Bregman’s abysmal start.

  38. What was Kelly’s 0-fer to start the career? I remember Bobby kept running him out there for his own good.

  39. @49, Kemp cost the Dodgers 37 runs in 2010 when he was playing CF. you’re probably correct that it’s hard to be bad enough at LF to give away 40 runs, but Adam Dunn was that bad.

  40. Gattis was around a -25 UZR/150 in LF. That’s gotta be a pretty decent low-water mark. -10 DRS in bbref metric.

  41. Kemp has been pretty hot of late. Believe it or not, he’s on my fantasy baseball team…

    Judging by that first Pirates AB, good Foltynewicz is on the mound. That was nasty.

  42. Foltynewicz has been getting squeezed on a few pitches. He doesn’t react well to that kind of thing.

  43. Okay, our first hit to LF. No human being was going to catch that screamer off the wall. Kemp played it cleanly and threw it back to the infield. Double for Kong, runner at first advanced to third, other runner scored.

    So that means he’s got a dWAR of 1.0? How does this work?

  44. Yeah, stayed with him too long. Guess it was supposed to be a learning experience in a meaningless game?

  45. dWAR is still 0.0 as a Brave (unless there’s some dissenters out there that think he should have jumped 30 feet in the air to catch it).

  46. Pirate dude laced a ball down the left field line. Kemp fielded it cleanly and kept him to a single.

  47. Andruw would have had that.

    Folty was mowing along until that 13-pitch AB to Frazier. He still has too much of a tendency to throw fastball after fastball after fastball. 95 MPH is great, but major leaguers need to see the offspeed more often. Hopefully he continues to evolve from being a thrower to a pitcher. I’m glad they don’t listen to idiots like me that wanted him in the bullpen.

  48. He still looks like the best of the lot to me so far. He needs a get-me-over breaking ball that he can throw in backwards counts. His slider is rarely a strike.

  49. I fully realize that we’re way past giving an f about the lineup…but Aybad hitting 2nd is a bold move.

  50. @77, I haven’t been watching as closely, but it was a changeup that hit Cervelli in the earflap. Maybe he didn’t trust his location on it and dropped the pitch?

    @79, Showcasing him for a trade!

  51. @76 Didn’t see it, but that sounds like a 0.2 bases above average LF play, so my running tally stands at 0.05 runs above average. Theres no way I don’t keep this up all season.

  52. Spectacular routine play by Kemp there…lol. This is going to be enough entertainment to make it to September.

  53. Folty had his changeup working until that one in Cervelli’s ear hole. Also, Folty autocorrects to filthy on my phone. The first couple times through the lineup, he was.

  54. He had things on lockdown through his blowup inning for the most part. But there was one pitch he threw right down the middle and it was called a ball, you could tell he was steamed. Same thing happened again next inning, a third strike called a ball, and he wound up walking the guy. He kept getting more progressively out of sorts over those types of things. Then the hitting the guy in the head. I think Foltynewicz’ problems isn’t his stuff, it’s his demeanor.

    So what did we learn about Kemp’s defense tonight? Y’all got that all in the spreadsheet now?

  55. How we give/take credit for an easy play that he makes look hard because he’s slow/has poor reaction times?

  56. Yup, with the ongoing QB question & the backfield injuries, there’s just no way to predict what UGA will do from Week 1.

    I think the D will be alright, but playing an all-O/no-D UNC team right away isn’t the recipe for having the defense steal one.

    But you never know… maybe UGA just runs thru them anyway. UNC can score, but their D last year was dreadful.

    And if UT plays UGA without Sony Michel or Nick Chubb & has Grayson Lambert taking the snaps, at the very least, you might see the visitors favored in this one. (I gotta believe you’ll be seeing Eason at QB by then.)

    I think we know what UT is — I’d make them the East faves, too; can’t really say that for UGA right now — way too many questions.

  57. @95

    I also think UGA has questions at linebacker.

    Tennessee’s defense should be really good. The the defensive line shouldn’t have issues getting to the QB. That allows you to rush the passer without blitzing. IF you can do that, you will win a lot of games.

  58. @95 is pretty much the UGA preview. No idea. 11-1 or 7-5. I think it’ll be closer to 11-1 and I’m banking on the new coaching regime being smarter and more prepared. The UNC game can’t get here soon enough.

  59. #97
    Best-case/worst-case, just don’t know. But going negative for a minute, if the entire backfield (QB & RBs) fails to produce for an entire season, yeah, this won’t be a good team.

    Still, a 5-loss season would probably mean UGA loses to almost every school on the schedule that’s at least halfway decent.

    UGA’s sked isn’t terrifying. It’s not exactly easy — OOC schools are UNC (G-Dome) & Tech, while SEC schools include UT, UF (Jax), Auburn & Ole Miss (@Oxford) — but the East portion seems to offer another roadmap to 10 wins.

    With Ole Miss looking to be the season’s toughest road match, the UT & UF games loom large… once again.

  60. I really think the SEC East is on the rise. Georgia will eventually get better (although I would not put too much stock, good or bad, in Smart’s first year), Tennessee is definitely improving, and if Florida gets an offense (you have to think they can given McElwain’s credentials), there will again be 3 good teams fighting it out on the top. I think the other 4 teams will either stay constant or go on a downward trajectory.

  61. Okay, fine, I’ll say something:

    Vanderbilt is getting better, not staying constant or on a downward trajectory. I expect a bowl game this season. The D is legit (and always will be under Mason), and it looks like we might actually have a QB, finally. If our starters on offense have a good-luck year, health-wise, we could really surprise.

  62. I agree Stu.

    Vandy should win vs MTSU, at WKU, TSU

    Toss up games are South Carolina, at Kentucky, at Mizzu

    Possible losses at Ga Tech, Florida, at Auburn

    Probable losses at UGA, Ole Miss and Tennessee

    That’s only three games where they will (probably) be a significant underdog.

  63. @103 – I hope you are right – Vandy is my 2nd favorite SEC team. It just seems that they have flown below the radar lately. Maybe that’s a good thing. South Carolina and Missouri are huge question marks to me. I have very little confidence in Muschamp being better than he was at Florida. Barry Odom is the ultimate unknown at Mizzou in my opinion.

  64. @99

    I don’t know, but the silence is alarming. :)

    Florida’s still got a Will Muschamp-recruited defense and will have a much-improved offense. It’s hard to think a Oregon State quarterback reject can play quarterback for Florida, but he looked excellent in the spring game, and both McElwain and Spurrier really like him.

    At the end of the day, though, we have a better team from a year ago when we played in the SECCG. We also won’t have a poor soul that was convinced by Muschamp to play quarterback when the rest of the country wanted him as a wide receiver (Treon Harris). And as big as Grier was, he really struggled until the 4th quarter against Tennessee, though he was excellent against Ole Miss. But he didn’t play against LSU, UGA, USC, FSU, and Bama.

    With that said, we have to play @UT, @FSU, and @Ark. We do get UGA, UK, Mizzou, and USC at home. I think UT is due to beat Florida, especially after last year. If “circling the team on your calendar” implies careful attention, then Florida must have a Howitzer aimed at it.

    I reckon I’ll go ahead and take Florida’s preview this year since we don’t hear from mravery much anymore. If he wants it though, he is the best man for the job.

  65. 104—MTSU will be a tougher game than either South Carolina or Mizzou will be. I’ll be a little surprised if VU loses to either of the latter two.

  66. Speaking of under the radar, as the #20 or so top prospect in the Braves system, Whalen has made a really quick jump from Class A Advanced to the majors. Anyone holding out hope that he could be a solid starter for us? Apparently his fastball is extremely average, but his curve is solid. I’m not sure if a call up is a good thing or not. Is he being called up because he’s ready or because our “real prospects” need more time?

  67. You can MadLib everything said about Vandy for Kentucky minus the good defense part. I want a bowl game. Probable wins, possible losses and probable losses are all about the same.

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