One year ago this week the last of the Derek Dooley supporters had fallen, kneecapped by Tennessee's loss at South Carolina. Fifteen losses to ranked teams gave way to a program more interested in the next head coach than the next Saturday. So when Missouri beat the Vols in four overtimes last season, their first win over an SEC foe not named Kentucky, it didn't really resonate with us.
Fast forward one year, and so much has changed for both teams.
Missouri is the dangerous version of the team many thought they would be last year, only with an added dose of opportunistic along the way making them 7-1 and the leader in the SEC East. The win over the Vols last year may have been a start, but their wins over Georgia and Florida this year have taken them to another level and clearly shown they belong in the nation's best conference.
Meanwhile Tennessee changed its coach, and its coach changed the conversation. So one year and one win over South Carolina later, the Vols enter their second date with Missouri very much invested in not only the future but the present. While the Tigers try to stay in the driver's seat in the SEC East, Tennessee seeks bowl eligibility with two more wins and a strong close to make for a successful season.
But now the present and the future collide as Josh Dobbs makes his first career start at a quarterback position that certainly appears to be all his for the rest of the regular season. Fans have wanted to see him all year, and now we'll get our chance on the road against at top ten team in his first start.
The biggest storylines in this game certainly begin with him.
Which backup quarterback plays the better game?
It's start one for Dobbs and start three for Maty Mauk, who was plenty good in his opener against the Gators (18 of 36 for 295) before coming back to earth against the Gamecocks (10 of 25 for 249, including a 96 yard touchdown pass). Dobbs should have some chances against a defense that will give up plays underneath. Mauk should have some chances working with three great receivers against a still-learning and physically overmatched Vol secondary. The guy who takes advantage of what imperfect defenses give him best will have a great chance to be the guy who goes home with the win.
As mentioned earlier this week, we've seen newcomers in a late-season first start do a number of things in a Tennessee uniform. So if Dobbs struggles and the Vols lose, it doesn't necessarily suggest he won't ever get there. And if he's great...well, great. But Tennessee shouldn't have to put it all on Dobbs; in fact, his work with his feet should demand enough attention to open up a little more breathing room for Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane.
One word of caution/hope: there's plenty of ridiculous message board/talk radio stuff this week taking Dobbs' skin color and degree program and assuming we're going to get some combination of Michael Vick and Howard Hughes out there on Saturday. Let's all take a deep breath and let Dobbs be Dobbs. And then let's remember this is only his first start. If he gives us something to enjoy, I have no doubt we'll enjoy it. But he will enter and leave the game as a true freshman. He'll get better.
Strength on Strength
Dobbs' best friend: Tennessee's offensive line, a little beat up by Clowney and Bama the last two weeks but still allowing just eight sacks in eight games. Dobbs' biggest enemy: Missouri's defensive line, best in the SEC with 25 sacks in eight games and 17 in these last four weeks of SEC East mayhem (Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina). Leading the way: Michael Sam, who's the best in the nation right now with ten sacks on the year. So if NFL scouts haven't seen enough of the Vol offensive linemen in pressure situations already this year, here's another huge opportunity.
With Justin Worley Tennessee wasn't good enough to get out of long down-and-distance situations for the most part, but until the last two weeks the Vols tended to avoid them. UT got into trouble with South Carolina via Clowney, but made enough plays to win. Going against Alabama's defense is a unique challenge. But now at Missouri, can Tennessee keep reasonable down and distance situations and protect Dobbs from third and long? The quarterback battle is more interesting and more unpredictable. But a huge part of that from UT's perspective is a great defensive line going against a great offensive line. Will the Vols stand up?
Who makes the fewest mistakes?
Though I'm not sure anyone would've believed it in August, right now these are the two best defenses in the SEC at creating turnovers. Missouri is fourth nationally in turnover margin and has recovered 21 on the year. The Vols have been much more generous, but have still recovered 18 of their own this season.
When dealing with new quarterbacks this is certainly a heightened issue. But between the lines in Missouri's two impressive wins and overtime near-miss against the East's elite the last three weeks? The Tigers have forced six fumbles in those games and recovered every single one of them. It's to Mizzou's absolute credit to force that many and to have been so great in turnover margin all year. Are they due to come back to center?
Both defenses want to bend but not break. Both teams have gotten critical turnovers at key points to help their season be as successful as its been thus far. And now both teams have backup quarterbacks thrust into the spotlight. Who makes the fewest mistakes? Because, as you and the General know, that team tends to win.
All eyes will be on Missouri in the SEC East race, and Josh Dobbs in his first start. But unless one quarterback or one line is able to separate themselves and significantly win the battle against their counterpart, this thing could easily come down to one break, one turnover, one play, one inch. Tennessee lost that inch against Georgia but won it against South Carolina. On the road with a new quarterback and another quality opponent, do these Vols have another one in them?
One thing's for sure: this November, it's nice to care about the wins and losses again.
Let's go get it.