Earlier this week, I detailed the Tennessee Volunteer's offensive philosophy under Josh Heupel and promised to detail more about the scheme later this week.
I am delivering on that promise.
The Tennessee Volunteers are 8-0 heading into their matchup on Saturday against Georgia (8-0), promising to be a tremendous head-to-head match between two National Championship contenders. It's promised to be one of the best games of the year, perhaps even topping the Tennessee/Alabama game from earlier this month.
Success in Tennessee can be attributed to the outstanding play of senior quarterback Hendon Hooker, the depth that Tennessee has amassed on both sides of the ball in just two years, and the unique scheming of Heupel, who looks like the National Coach of the Year right now.
Let's get into what this offense does really well, building on what we discussed earlier this week.
How the wide splits create space for the offense
For refreshers, the Tennessee offense runs its concepts out of a wide splits style of offense. What that means is that typically, Tennessee runs their offense with receivers stretched beyond the numbers, and aren't afraid to line up that way on both sides of the field.
What does it do? It forces a defense to defend the entire field because there are threats across the entire 52.5 yards (the width of the field). This compels defenses into making a decision - do they want to risk the chance of losing in one-on-one man coverage matchups or do they want to force Tennessee to drive the field taking what they give them in zone coverage?
Either way, the Volunteers have held up all year.
The other thing that Tennessee does very well is tempo. They are among the fastest offenses in college football, running a flurry of plays at lightning tempo, routinely keeping the defense guessing and oftentimes catching them lined up in the wrong spots.
Typically, Heupel designs his plays to attack all kinds of coverage. A smart pre-snap read by his quarterback will tell him where he needs to go with the ball. If the pre-snap look is bad, the quarterback has the go ahead to pull the ball down and run it himself.
The offense is built mostly in half-field reads. That means that pre-snap, Hendon Hooker will read the defense for man or zone coverage. Based on what he sees pre-snap and what the motion tells him, he plays the side of the field to beat that coverage. In the example above, he has a zone coverage beater on the left in a switch concept. He has curls to the right which is a timing-based man beating concept. If he has the numbers in the box, he can run the read option, making it a true run/pass option (RPO).
How Josh Heupel designs play structures to move defenders
The most interesting part of Heupel's offense is that even though it's designed to give Hooker half-field reads and speed up his processing, he's still moving defenders to open opportunities with his scheme.
Let's take our next example. As you can see, it's very similar to the first play. They are running curls to the top of the screen, with a leakout check-down by the running back, and they're running their zone beater switch to the bottom. At the very bottom, the receiver is running a go, giving Hooker the option to take the shot if it's there.
The genius of this play is clearly evident. It's almost impossible to defend with a quarterback who understands what he's supposed to do. The motion from the tight end moving out from inline and into the slot confirms whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. Hooker has already read the play, now he's getting his confirmation.
Tennessee is running three concepts on this play - a vertical shot, curls, and switch, and they still have a check-down. It's unbelievable.
How the defense is forced to react
It's almost impossible to play a one-high safety against this team, but Florida in this case tried it, and they paid dearly for their choices.
Florida's one high safety is supposed to make a judgement call - where am I needed to help the most? Typically in deep coverage, it's the deep ball. However, this offense likes to run the ball, so the safety will have to take an extra moment to pause and diagnose the play. Secondly, Hooker can run and isn't afraid to do so, which means the defenders are hesitant to make sure he doesn't run.
That hesitation makes defenders react late to their assignments. It's an over-reaction to the play, in a way, knowing that they're late tenses them and they get jumpy. In the case of this particular play, the safety covering the running back vacates his area to take away the check-down.
The post route working out of the slot in front of the safety creates a ridiculous amount of space up top, while the curl route keeps his man from dropping deep. The check-down route from the running back brings down the safety. Now the post is opened and a smart quarterback will see it. Hooker did, and hit the post for a 25 yard gain.
The unique Tennessee screen game
In the Tennessee offense, screens are an extension of the run game. They might count as a pass, but they are part of the quick flurry strikes to keep a defense gassed with constant movement.
This play design is one I noticed last year and it was used to score a big play on Georgia in the first quarter - and Alabama ran the same play when they played Georgia in the SEC Championship game. It's difficult to defend because it incorporates motion and overloads one side of the coverage.
In this case, Tennessee has a lead blocker in the slot receiver who takes out the cornerback. Now, the tight end comes in motion and takes out a safety or anyone who might be there. Now the receiver has tremendous space and can gash the defense for a big gain.
The element of the Run/Pass Option
Tennessee's RPO offense is sprinkled throughout the offense. RPO elements have been something that even professional coaches have begun doing clinics on - it makes an offense so difficult to prepare for with consistent RPO practices.
Heupel's coaching is no different. The first read the quarterbacks makes is looking at how many defenders are in the box. If the numbers favor the offense, one-on-one with blockers against defenders, it's going to be a run. If it's not in their favor, it's a throw.
The play above is a quick RPO - a screen out of stacks essentially on both sides of the ball. The receiver on the line of scrimmage is just buying enough space to get the throw to the receiver behind him.
Tennessee will run the same formations and call drastically different plays from them, so defenses can't bank on what they normally do.
This second play is another RPO - with a man-beater curl on both sides and vertical shots going down the field.
Tennessee is arguably the most difficult offense to defend in the country right now. Over their last four conference games (Florida, at LSU, Alabama, and Kentucky), Tennessee is averaging 43.5 points per game. All five of Tennessee's power-five opponents this year have been ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time while playing them. They haven't looked ahead to other games, either, the other three games against Ball State, Akron, and UT-Martin averaged 62.3 points.
On paper and in reality, they're the best offense in the nation. And there's no real question about it.