Tennessee's 2011 football team resembled a first-time marathon runner: You could count on a dramatic fade at the finish.
After outscoring opponents by a combined 161-111 in the first half, last year's Vols were outscored 160-77 in the second half. This tendency to collapse late was especially obvious in SEC play, where the Big Orange was outscored by a mind-boggling tally of 132-29 in the third and fourth quarters combined.
Proving that he can read statistics as well as the next guy, head coach Derek Dooley made finishing games a major priority during the offseason. The emphasis appears to have paid off: Heading into Saturday's game with Florida, Tennessee has outscored its first two 2012 opponents by a combined 23-0 margin in the third quarter, besting North Carolina State 10-0 in Game 1 and Georgia State 13-0 in Game 2.
One common criticism of past Vol squads was the inability to make successful halftime adjustments. Junior linebacker Jacques Smith said that is no longer the case under first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"Coach Sal definitely has a lot of adjustments," Smith said. "It's very different from past years. It definitely has shown in our play in the second half. As long as we come out with fire and energy and go through our adjustments, I think we'll be good in the second half."
Rather than make dramatic changes in Tennessee's scheme or game plan, Sunseri merely gives his defenders a review of the opponent's big plays, an explanation of why they worked and a counter measure to make sure they don't continue working in the second half.
"It's really just breaking down each play, telling us what we're seeing out there," Smith said. "I think that's what the big home run was — just seeing the plays on the board."
Junior defensive lineman Daniel Hood also respects Sunseri's ability to push the right buttons during intermission.
"Coach Sal does a great job of showing us what plays hit in the first half," Hood said, "drawing them up and going over everything with everybody, making sure everybody knows what the adjustments are."
Junior receiver Justin Hunter hints that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney may be a little more aggressive in his third-quarter play-calling this fall, noting: "We're going into the second half like it's 0-0, just bombing away."
One obvious reason for Tennessee's second-half fades in 2010 and 2011 was fatigue. Overworked Vol starters tended to run out of gas in the third and fourth quarters. Hood thinks improved stamina is partly responsible for the second-half success thus far in 2012.
"The whole offseason we said we're not going to be just a first-half team anymore," he said. "When the workout got hard that's when we put in that extra drive to work harder. It's paid off so far. That's all we worked on this offseason — pushing through in the third and fourth quarters, pushing through when things got hard."
Sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson echoed those sentiments, noting: "I believe the key was over the summer time — working hard, doing extra drills to prepare us for the fourth quarter."
Sophomore running back Devrin Young also believes better workouts during the preseason have produced better second-half results during the season.
"We did more conditioning," he recalled. "We did more of the hard things toward the end of practice."
Hunter believes the new no-huddle offensive scheme has created a brisker pace that helped the Vols get in better shape.
"I think it's the way we're practicing, being up-tempo and everything like that," he said.
One alarming aspect of the 2011 Vols was a tendency to come unglued if a break went against them in the third quarter. The team has matured beyond that point, Young says, adding: "We're learning how to overcome adversity quicker."
All of these factors may have contributed to Tennessee's improved second-half play in 2012. One thing that hasn't contributed to the improvement is fiery halftime speeches. This Vol staff is more about schematic adjustments than dramatic rhetoric.
"We get that out of the way (before the game)," Smith said. "That just creates a lot of hype. We're just focused on the facts, and that's to eliminate our mistakes and don't let them get anything on us."