Tennessee’s offseason mantra has been “25 points.” That is the combined margin of the Volunteers’ last five losses to Missouri (2014), Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama.
The implication is clear. Close games come down to a small number of plays. Players need to focus and execute.
"“Why is LeBron James LeBron James? We all saw Game 7. The great players step it up and they take it over,” Jones said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about. Sometimes you have an opportunity to end the game. It may be a sack, it may be a first down, it may be one or two extra yards to keep the clock running, so we really try to point those out.” "
Here’s the thing. 20-year-old college players will make the odd mistake. That happens, even at Bama. But, broadly, Tennessee players were executing last year. The Vols’ offense was 21st nationally in third down conversions. Their defense was second nationally in opponent third down conversions. Tennessee was tied for fourth fewest turnovers in the country.
What cost Tennessee in key situations was mind-blowingly conservative coaching. One of those “25 points” came against Florida. The Vols lost because Butch Jones opted to kick an extra point up 12 late rather than risk a two point version (that carried no risk). Florida scored two touchdowns and won 28-27.
Seven of those points came against Oklahoma. That game went to overtime. Yes, Tennessee collapsed and lost a late lead in the 4th quarter. But, that lead could have been bigger. Butch Jones opted to kick a 19-yard field goal on 4th and 1 six minutes into the first quarter.
The worst case scenario there is Oklahoma gets the ball back pinned inside its own one-yard line, where the most probably outcome is Oklahoma punting the ball back to Tennessee near field goal range, in the first quarter.
A football game can come down to two or three plays. It can also come down to one coaching decision when an overly conservative staff does not understand how their decisions affect the team’s probability of winning.