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A closer look at the difference between first-half, second-half Tennessee

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Maybe it came in a losing effort, but Malik Foreman made a play Saturday against Texas A&M that explains the difference between first-half Tennessee and second-half Tennessee.

For whatever reason, the Volunteers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) -- who host Alabama (6-0, 3-0) on Saturday -- have been awful to open most games. Somehow in the second half, though, they have a way of making incredible plays that win ballgames.

“This is a resilient group,” explained Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose team has trailed by double digits in five of its six games. “They never crack, they never waver.”

Now about that Foreman play. Tennessee trailed 35-28 with about two minutes remaining when A&M’s Trayveon Williams broke loose on what seemed sure to become a 73-yard touchdown run that would put away the Aggies’ win. However, Foreman ran Williams down just as he crossed the 5-yard line and punched the ball out of his hands before Williams reached the goal line. The loose ball sailed out of the end zone for a touchback, giving the ball to Tennessee to drive for a game-tying touchdown and force overtime.

“That's a young man who didn’t quit on the play,” Jones said. “He could have quit, he could have given up. That was a character play.”

The Vols have had plenty of opportunities to give up this season while facing long odds, but somehow have overcome all of those situations until Saturday’s 45-38 loss in the second overtime period.

There was the incredible second-half comeback against Florida, after a livid Neyland Stadium crowd booed the Vols off their home field when they trailed 21-3 at halftime.

And perhaps no situation seemed more desperate than two Saturdays ago, when Georgia Bulldogs scored the go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds remaining, only to see Tennessee win 34-31 moments later when Jauan Jennings went up in a crowd to reel in a 43-yard touchdown pass on the final play.

“They punched us left and right, but we never gave up,” Tennessee defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. said after the Georgia game. “We were in the corner, but at the end of the day, it's all about four quarters.”

That’s a cliché, sure, but it’s also a truism about this Tennessee team. The difference between halves is getting ridiculous at this point.

How ridiculous? Take it away, ESPN Stats & Information database:

Scoring: Tennessee’s offense has been bad to open most games, averaging just 9.67 points per first half, an average that ranks 116th in the FBS. Opponents have outscored the Vols 98-58 before halftime, with that minus-40 scoring margin tied for 107th nationally.

However, it’s a totally different story in the second half and overtime. After halftime, Tennessee is sixth nationally in scoring (24.17 ppg), and its defense is tied for 30th in opponent scoring (10.33 ppg). Tennessee’s scoring margin after the break ranks fourth in the FBS.

Yardage: Tennessee opponents have outgained the Vols by 222 total yards in the first half, with their per-game deficit of minus-37 yards ranking 98th. They have outgained opponents by 418 yards after halftime, with their margin of plus-69.67 ranking 15th.

The Vols also have accounted for twice as many offensive plays that covered 20-plus yards in the second half (22) as in the first (10).

Turnovers: Only two teams have turned the ball over more frequently in the first half than Tennessee (nine): Akron with 10 and Bowling Green with 12. Only Bowling Green, San Jose State and Arizona State (all minus-7) have worse first-half turnover ratios than the Vols (minus-6).

Tennessee has committed seven turnovers (tied for 111th) after halftime and has generated 10 takeaways (tied for first), with its plus-3 turnover margin tying for 19th nationally.

Quarterback play: Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs typically saves his best play for the second half. His Total Quarterback Rating in the first half is a subpar 37 on a 1-100 scale. After halftime, it’s nearly twice as good, at 71.

From Tennessee’s perspective, it’s nice that the Vols typically found their way out of the holes they dug for themselves, but this is also a trend that they’d prefer to halt. Jones said he’s “as mind-boggled as everyone else” about the slow starts, which he said can be remedied by paying better attention to detail.

The Vols had better start paying attention quickly. Top-ranked Alabama and its suffocating defense will not be as forgiving as previous opponents who allowed these comebacks to occur.