KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors had an old-school suggestion for current coach Derek Dooley on how to minimize the Volunteers' problems converting third downs: Go to the quick kick.
"He's right, so we may work on that this week on third down," Dooley said.
He may be kidding about punting before fourth down, but the Vols' struggles on third down are no joke. Through four games, they've converted only 11 of 58 third-down attempts for a paltry 19 percent success rate, ranking them 119th out of 120 FBS teams on third-down conversions.
The majority of those third downs have been long-yardage situations thanks to penalties, dropped balls or tailbacks tackled for losses.
"Generally when you're where we are on third down it is everything (going wrong)," Dooley said. "We've just got to play out of it."
Tennessee on Saturday has a difficult task as it faces No. 12 LSU (4-0, 2-0), which has the top defense in the SEC and ninth in the nation. The Tigers' opponents are averaging just 254 yards, 179.2 yards by air and 74.8 on the ground.
But the Vols (2-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) could also get their top receiver back for Saturday's trip to Baton Rouge. Gerald Jones was out against Oregon, Florida and UAB after needing surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand.
Jones has been a go-to receiver on third down as he led all Tennessee receivers in yards for the past two seasons. His experience has helped make him fearless in clutch situations, said Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms.
"The best thing about Gerald Jones is that he's an extremely tough receiver," he said. "You can't say that about many receivers nowadays. They want to make that big catch on the outside, but Gerald's one of the few receivers that will go through the middle of the field and take a hit against a linebacker and get those tough yards."
The Vols also need starting tailback Tauren Poole to be completely healthy against LSU's damaging blitzes to help set up short third down situations or avoid third downs altogether.
Poole hasn't been 100 percent in two weeks and left after a quarter against UAB after injuring his right thigh.
Though Poole led the SEC after two games, Tennessee's rushing game has dropped off since then and is now averaging only 146.2 yards per game as one of the worst in the league.
Despite winning against UAB in overtime on Sept. 25, the Vols displayed their third-down woes, converting just two of 15 attempts. Both conversions came in the fourth quarter — one on a 1-yard rush by David Oku on third-and-1 at the Vols 28 and the other on a 17-yard pass from Simms to Luke Stocker on third-and-6 at the Tennessee 41.
Simms was sacked twice on third down attempts, including the final play of regulation. Seven third-down pass attempts fell incomplete and five more were completed but were short of the first-down marker.
To make matters worse, dropped balls forced the Vols to go three-and-out during two third-quarter series that started in UAB territory. Two other third-down situations were made more difficult because of false starts.
"The penalties are crucial in that situation; You can't do that," Simms said. "Maybe if we get in some third-down situations where we aren't third and a mile, we can convert a few more, but that's all about just focusing on first and second down and winning that battle."
Simms said while it was disappointing to stall out on drives last week, the team has made improvements.
"We're close, but each week is just about fine-tuning those details. We just need to fight through this and we just need to make more plays," he said.