Mid-season Review: What’s with all the slow starts?

Photo Credit: Bill Shipley/Shipley Photo

It’s already early October, exactly the halfway point of the regular season for the Vols, and this year has had the amount of emotions of about five seasons combined. There have been moments when we’ve thought Knoxville might burn down, like the first half against Florida or most of the game against Appalachian State. And, there have also been incredible highs, such as the second half against Florida, the Dobbnail Boot, or the Malik Foreman poke at the goal line against Texas A&M.

One thing and one thing only has been consistent in every game, Tennessee has started flat. EVERY — SINGLE — GAME.

Let’s review:

Appalachian State:

Cameron Sutton muffs the punt inside the 5 and gives Appalachian State a 7–0 lead. Tennessee continued to play sloppy and Josh Dobbs made a freshmen level mistake with a pick on the 25-yard-line as the half ended with his team in need of points. The Vols went into the locker room down 13–3.

Alright, but maybe it was just first game jitters.

Nope.

Virginia Tech:

Tennessee starts slow and falls behind 14–0.

Okay, but that was just because of the big stage at the Battle at Bristol, right?

Nah.

Ohio:

Dobbs threw an interception inside Tennessee’s own 20 and the Vols never could fully control the game in the first half leading just 14–12 at the break.

Sure, but Tennessee was just playing down to their competition against a bad MAC team.

Well…

Florida:

Presented without comment.

Maybe the streak was in their heads?

Georgia:

The Jalen Hurd fumble at the goal line is what is remembered but Tennessee missed plenty of opportunities and fell behind 17–0 to get things rolling.

Alright, five games in a row, but they have to play four quarters eventually…

Texas A&M:

Four fumbles in the first half and Tennessee went into the locker room down 21–7.

You know the rest of that story.


All in all, Tennessee has been outscored 62–17 this year in the 1st quarter. That is an astonishingly bad statistic.

Who or what is to blame for the lackluster starts? Here are three possibilities:

Coaches:

Don’t get it twisted, Tennessee has some great coaches but this is the first place to look when a team continuously comes out flat. It’s hard to articulate this point but doesn’t it seem like Tennessee has played tight early in games and later on, they’ve been much more relaxed?

One thing the coaching staff has failed to do early in games has been establishing the run. Tennessee’s running backs are too good to not go to them early and often.

Spotlight is too big:

You have to remember that this is the first time Tennessee has come into the season ranked in the top 10 in more than a decade. Those of us who have been around long enough recognize that this is where Tennessee football belongs but perhaps the moment has been a little much for the players.

After six games, NOBODY should question this team’s effort and determination, that’s not what I’m trying to say here. But when expectations are so high, sometimes the pressure is hard to overcome, especially for 18–22 year-old athletes.

This team plays better from behind because their talent finally comes out, the key is to figure out a way to make that happen from the opening kickoff.

The schedule:

According to Massey Ratings, five of Tennessee’s first six opponents are inside the top 50, Ohio is the only one that is not. The top three opponents are #5 TAMU, #13 Virginia Tech and #21 Florida. Tennessee opponents are an incredible 30–3 combined in their non-Tennessee games.

Texas A&M is the only other top 15 team who has played three top 30 teams with No. 8 Tennessee, No. 19 Auburn and No. 29 Arkansas.

Alabama has played two teams inside the top 30, No. 15 Ole Miss and No. 29 Arkansas. Michigan has also played two in No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 28 Colorado. Wisconsin as well with No. 1 Michigan and No. 24 LSU. Clemson and Louisville played each other and Louisville played No. 11 FSU and Clemson played No. 19 Auburn.

Ohio State and Washington have played just one team inside the top 50 with No. 25 Oklahoma and No. 20 Stanford respectively.

Tennessee’s schedule has been significantly more difficult than all other teams in the top 15 besides TAMU.

A brutal schedule combined with a few teams better than people expected perhaps caused some surprises for the Vols. And as we saw Saturday, injuries.

Conclusion:

The truth is, it’s probably a combination of the three, with a bunch of smaller factors thrown in as well. Regardless, Tennessee has to play four quarters Saturday to have any chance of beating Alabama. It’s that simple.

Even after that game, the first quarter play has to improve. Tennessee has been playing with fire all year long in the first half and has thankfully only been burned once.

Let’s hope they don’t get burned again.