Many of us believed this was a more important question when Riley Ferguson's name was in the mix, both because Ferguson was believed to have a higher ceiling and because we've seen Justin Worley and Josh Dobbs already. The real question now becomes how much room for growth remains between the performances we saw from the Vol quarterbacks last year and their potential going forward?
It's an intriguing question because the other pieces are new, significantly upgraded at wide receiver and significantly downgraded on the offensive line. Both will have a lot to say about whether Worley and/or Dobbs can be more productive this fall. But even if all things were equal, is there really a significant difference between Justin Worley and Josh Dobbs?
Last September with the Vols 2-2 and Worley angst at an all-time high with two freshmen on the depth chart behind him, we compared Worley's numbers through four games to several comparable former Vol quarterbacks. What we found was guys like Rick Clausen could be successful with talent around them, but could not be asked to lead the way by themselves. Worley's stock would rise in October with the Georgia performance and the South Carolina win, then he was lost for the year at Alabama.
Here are the full game-by-game numbers for both Worley and Dobbs last year:
Josh Dobbs was very effective against Kentucky, Justin Worley was very effective against Austin Peay, and I'm not sure either is telling us much, other than Dobbs' ability to bounce back from a horrendous performance. I thought the Vanderbilt game changed the conversation about who would play quarterback for the Vols going forward. Granted, Marquez North went out with an injury and the receiving corps got real thin. But Dobbs was completely unable to move the ball downfield; his numbers are inflated from the hail mary-esque final seconds and he still averaged less than three yards per attempt.
However, Dobbs cut his teeth against Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn, three of the best teams in college football last year. He didn't throw a touchdown until the Kentucky game, but is it really fair for us to judge him or his potential based on what he did against such stiff competition with little else to compare it to?
Dobbs had a slightly higher completion percentage. Worley had a slightly better number in yards per attempt (thought neither was great), threw fewer interceptions (one every 24.5 attempts to one every 20 attempts for Dobbs), and got the one big win. The narrative on Worley was turning just about the time he was lost for the year. With dreams of Riley Ferguson it was easy to put that narrative on the back burner, but now it reappears as perhaps Tennessee's best option for one more year.
Still, Dobbs is younger and clearly more athletic. He carried the ball 38 times for 189 yards, nearly five yards per carry. Worley meanwhile had just 19 carries for 56 yards. Tennessee used a read option look a lot last year, but Worley was a running joke, pardon the pun. Dobbs presents a real threat to move the football with his legs. He's not Michael Vick or Jameis Winston or, you know, some less successful freak athlete. But he is certainly more mobile than Worley. Is it enough to call it a completely different offense with Dobbs in the game? I'm not sure I'd go that far.
I think Justin Worley is the safer choice, or at least last year's version was compared to true freshman Josh Dobbs. If sophomore Josh Dobbs will cut down on the interceptions and eliminate mistakes the way freshmen tend to do when they cease to be freshmen, perhaps we get a different answer. But Tennessee's window to find out that answer is very short, and I think this is the biggest reason to start Worley: Utah State and Arkansas State will not be free, and for a team needing six wins for its first bowl game since 2010 the Vols can't afford to lose those games. I don't want to deal with grossly premature questions about Butch Jones when the calendar still reads August and all these freshmen have played for two seconds. The program would certainly love to avoid those questions by beating Utah State and Arkansas State and save the losses for programs we're a little more used to getting beat by right now.
Given little proven separation between the two, I think Worley is the best choice to start August 31 and the safest choice to get you two wins against two tough outs early on. Does that mean Worley will remain the best option all season? I'm not sure - he's clearly not an option for 2015 and beyond the way Dobbs is, and that's a short list with Nathan Peterman (and who knows, maybe he can get back in this thing) and only one commit for February.
I think how the Vols finish in 2014 will have more to do with the speed of freshman maturity (more on that later) and less to do with the winner of the Justin Worley/Josh Dobbs battle, because I remain unconvinced there's that much separation between the two. But I do know, having seen it already from Worley, that the Vols can be good enough to win some games they shouldn't with smart, safe quarterback play and a couple of special plays here and there from talented newcomers. That's exactly how it happened last year, and there's no reason it can't happen again this fall.
Who do you think is the answer at quarterback for Tennessee? And do you agree there are more important questions?