— KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Third down has been a letdown for Tennessee's defense so far this season.
Tennessee is allowing opponents to convert 45.6 percent (26 of 57) of its third-down situations. Vanderbilt is the only Southeastern Conference team doing a worse job of stopping opposing offenses on third down.
"It's very difficult and hard to deal with," senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "We fought so hard on first and second down to get them in these third-down situations - and then we let them off the hook by (giving up) the first down."
Tennessee (2-2) is ranked 103rd nationally in third-down conversion percentage defense heading into Saturday's game with South Alabama (2-1).
The Volunteers actually did a better job of stopping teams on third down last year, when they gave up 35.7 points per game and statistically had one of their worst defenses ever. That defense allowed opponents to convert 38.2 percent (73 of 191) of their third-down attempts.
"Third down is definitely going to be an emphasis this week," senior defensive end Marlon Walls said. "We've got to get to the quarterback."
This statistic often accurately measures a team's success. The SEC's top four teams in third-down conversion percentage defense last season (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M) went a combined 45-8. Four of the SEC's five worst teams in this category posted losing records.
No. 20 Florida beat Tennessee 31-17 last week by going 10 of 18 on third down and converting its first five third-down opportunities in the second half. The Gators scored touchdowns on their first two second-half possessions and converted a third-and-10 situation on each of them.
"I didn't think we managed the critical situations, the critical downs, the critical stages of the game," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "A lot of times, the game can be shaped - whether you win or lose - by two to three plays. I didn't think we really managed those situations particularly well. You never know which two to three plays are going to make the difference in the football game."