A tough break for Justin Worley will open the door for true freshman Josh Dobbs to make his first start Saturday at #10 Missouri. As first reported by Jimmy Hyams, Worley is out approximately four weeks with torn ligaments in his thumb. The timetable for his return almost certainly suggests his (regular) season is over; the Vols have just five weeks left with four opponents and a bye on November 16.
We'll get to the excitement for Dobbs in a moment, but first a few words about Justin Worley. Years from now if Butch Jones has truly led Tennessee back to the promised land, I hope the record will still show it was Justin Worley who threw the pass that helped change everything. Marquez North will always get most of the credit, and rightfully so, but Tennessee needed Worley to be just good enough to get us to a bowl game and give us a chance for that one big upset. And though his season may come to an end after just eight games, he helped put us in position to accomplish all of our goals this season and build this thing for the future. His play in the second half against Georgia and against South Carolina gave us the opportunities we needed.
If his time as Tennessee's starting quarterback is over, Worley will remain in the group we placed him in last month statistically with the likes of A.J. Suggs, Rick Clausen, and Matt Simms. This year he's completed 55.6% of his passes for 154.8 yards per game and 6.3 yards per attempt, with 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Of that group only Clausen was able to lead the Vols to a win over a ranked team as a starter (plus, of course, his work as a backup in The Rally at Death Valley) in the 2005 Cotton Bowl. Worley's win over South Carolina came over a higher ranked team - #11 Carolina as opposed to #22 Texas A&M - and was exponentially more important to the course of Tennessee Football.
Hearing the complaints in defeat and the praise in victory of a suffering fanbase, Worley has a "Thanks for your service" feel about him. I'm sure he will have an opportunity to compete for the job again in spring practice for his senior year in 2014, but it does feel like the page now turns to the freshmen on the depth chart behind him.
Worley was once one of those freshmen, and two years ago he was the most recent example of the Vols attempting to go in a different direction at quarterback in the second half of the season. As Josh Dobbs prepares to make his first start at Missouri this Saturday, here's a quick look at how others in similar situations in Knoxville have fared recently when making a change in the second half of the season:
2011 Justin Worley
Replaced Matt Simms at #1 Alabama (did not throw a pass) 37-6 L
First Start vs #13 South Carolina: 10 of 26 for 105 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 14-3 L
Totals as Starter: 48 of 87, 604 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT
L vs #13 South Carolina, W vs MTSU, L at #8 Arkansas, replaced by returning Tyler Bray
I'd forgotten, among everything else that was done poorly in the five previous years, that Derek Dooley burned Justin Worley's redshirt at Alabama only to have him hand the ball off five times. This year's win against South Carolina was full circle for Worley, who threw two interceptions in the end zone against the Gamecocks in his first start in a winnable game that became a 14-3 loss. As we saw this year he was more than fine against lesser competition in the win over MTSU (in what remains his best statistical performance, 23 of 32 for 291 and a touchdown), but was then fed to the hogs at Arkansas before Bray returned from a broken thumb the following week. To be fair, Worley wasn't bad in Fayetteville - 15 of 29 for 205 with an interception - but couldn't tackle Joe Adams either.
2010 Tyler Bray
Replaced Matt Simms at at #20 South Carolina (9 of 15 for 159 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) 38-24 L
First Start at Memphis: 19 of 33 for 325 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, 50-14 W
Totals as Starter: 100 of 177, 1,546 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT
W at Memphis, W vs Ole Miss, W at Vanderbilt, W vs Kentucky, L vs North Carolina
The once-future king of Tennessee Football, Bray got the green light after Matt Simms fumbled on the second play of Tennessee's first third quarter possession. His first pass was a pick six. But he was lights out from there, leading the Vols to a tie game in the fourth quarter before the Gamecocks pulled away. You can say the November schedule was soft, but you can also say the Vols had to have all four of those wins to get bowl eligible. And Bray got them, breaking all of Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen's freshman passing records along the way. November 2010 ended up being the best month of Derek Dooley's career, thanks in large part to the young Bray's laser-rocket arm. Once this change was made, there was clearly no reason to go back.
2006 Jonathan Crompton
Replaced Erik Ainge vs #13 LSU (11 of 24 for 183 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) 28-24 L
First Start at #11 Arkansas: 16 of 34 for 174 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 31-14 L (only start as a freshman)
Ainge's second injury came on a ridiculous quarterback draw call at South Carolina the week before. He tried to go in a showdown game against LSU with the Vols ranked #8 and still in the hunt for the SEC East title, but started 1 of 6 and couldn't really protect himself. So on came Crompton, who back then was the celebrated local-ish kid with mountain values and such. And he played admirably against a great Tiger team, helped greatly by the play of Robert Meachem. In his only start as a freshman, Crompton struggled against a very good Arkansas team and the Vols were held to just 266 yards of offense. Like Worley in 2011 and Dobbs now, he was thrown into the fire immediately against really good teams.
2004 Rick Clausen
Replaced Erik Ainge vs Notre Dame (10 of 18, 120 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT) 17-13 L
First Start at Vanderbilt: 19 of 30, 189 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 38-33 W
Totals as Starter: 81 of 136, 949 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT
W at Vanderbilt, W vs Kentucky, L vs #3 Auburn, W vs #22 Texas A&M
Ainge's first injury came on a ridiculous sequence at the end of the first half against Notre Dame with the Vols ranked #9 and leading the SEC East race. Clausen's turnover cost UT the game against the Irish, but he responded well enough to clinch the SEC East at Vanderbilt the following week despite 314 yards from Jay Cutler. Then against Kentucky he engineered a fourth quarter comeback with the Vols down 31-22. Clausen unleashed 26 of 41 for 349 yards to help the Vols win. He gave Tennessee a chance against the undefeated Auburn juggernaut in the SEC Championship Game, then won Cotton Bowl MVP honors with 18 of 27 for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Clausen played well enough during his time to create a legitimate quarterback controversy in 2005, which was a complete disaster, but still...
So for Josh Dobbs, there are several historical similarities. He got his first action against a great team and will get his first start against a top ten foe. These are not throwaway games for Tennessee, the Vols need two wins to get bowl eligible. Will he be an instant revelation and secure the job for the future like Bray? Can the Vols manage the game around him and get the wins they need to get like Clausen? Or will Tennessee struggle to move the ball offensively and fall short like Worley and Crompton?
We've seen all of the above before, and saw both Crompton and Worley eventually improve and score meaningful wins for UT, so any terrible things we see from #11 on Saturday won't necessarily be indicative of only future terrible things. Tennessee has a strong rushing attack that goes for almost 200 yards per game, but Missouri swallowed that up against Florida and South Carolina so Tennessee almost certainly will need a solid performance from Dobbs to win.
It's an opportunity for the future, but also a big opportunity for the present. We'll all be watching with extreme interest as Josh Dobbs writes his first chapter as a starting quarterback for the University of Tennessee.