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Alabama 34 Tennessee 20 - Tomorrow is Today

The Tide won their eighth straight in the series, but Tennessee's present and future are now on a long-awaited collision course.

Kevin C. Cox

You just never know what you're going to get when you sit down to watch these things.

You can have an idea of what you're going to get.  Sometimes you can have a really good idea.  And then sometimes the things you believe the most - Tennessee's offensive line is atrocious, Tennessee will never do anything with its backup quarterbacks, Tennessee's defense can keep us in the game against anybody - just get thrown in the fire right away.

Coming in the Vols had given up just 22 plays of 20+ yards in its first seven games.  Then five of Alabama's first 24 snaps went for at least 20 yards, the last one a 28 yard run by Blake Sims that gave the Tide a 27-0 lead less than three minutes into the second quarter.  A mixture of two things happened here, your percentages varying based on your shade of orange or red:  Lane Kiffin called a great game, and Alabama was allowed to get away with late substitutions without the referees holding the snap for the defense to match personnel.  The latter was one of the first points made by Bob Kesling and Butch Jones in his interview on the Vol Network post-game last night.  I don't know if it was intentional or unintentional, and either way it wasn't the difference between winning and losing.  "Bama cheatin'!" is the easy narrative, and I'm happy to spread it if it's true, but I also think you have to give Kiffin credit.  He led the league in fist-pumping last night for a number of reasons, none of them good for Tennessee.

Also deserving of credit in the most obvious statement in this post:  there's an older gentleman who bleeds crimson who comes to our 8:30 worship service.  He and his wife are always the first two in the sanctuary every week and he loves Alabama the way you love Tennessee.  And he's been around, he's seen it all.  As such, he isn't quick with praise, even in the midst of Nick Saban's run in Tuscaloosa.  So this morning when I asked him what he thought and he told me Amari Cooper was the second best wide receiver in the history of Alabama football (behind Don Hutson, Class of 1934)?  That's a pretty good compliment.

So, you're down four scores in 17 minutes.  The obvious strength of your team is on pace to give up a thousand yards, literally.  Your starting quarterback is unavailable.  Your offense hasn't scored a touchdown in its last nine quarters of SEC play.  All of this against your biggest rival.

We thought we knew some things then, too.  And then, Joshua Dobbs changed the narrative of the present, and may have changed the narrative of the future.

Somewhere Lil Jon flipped a switch.  While Tennessee's defense yielded 11 of 15 third downs (including five crucial, brutal, blue-collar first downs on the game's most important drive to put the Tide up 34-17), moving its season average from around one out of four allowed to around one out of three?  Tennessee's offense went 0 for 4 on its first four third downs...and then, incredibly, also went 11 of its last 15.  With Josh Dobbs.  Against Alabama's defense.

Down 27-0, Dobbs hit Pig Howard for 28 on 3rd and 13, then hit Josh Malone on a well-placed ball on 3rd and goal at the 9 for Tennessee's first points.  On the next drive, Dobbs scrambled for six yards on 3rd and 2, then hit Marquez North on the "how did he catch that?!" play of the night for 20 on 3rd and 10.  Tennessee added three points to make it 27-10.

The Vol defense wasn't good on third down all night, but they did take away the big play.  Bama went wild in the first 17 minutes, but didn't have a play of 20+ yards again until their final drive, stripped at the goal line.  In between the Vol defense stopped the Tide on its opening drive of the third quarter, setting up this from Dobbs:  3rd and 7 complete to Marquez North for 22, 3rd and 2 to Ethan Wolf for 10, 3rd and 8 on his own with a brilliant 15 yard pump fake scramble, then another 3rd and goal at the 9 and another touchdown as Von Pearson hit the brakes and they flew right by.

Tennessee couldn't complete the comeback and Dobbs still did some young things, missing Marquez North on an easy touchdown late and throwing a first down interception into double coverage before that.  Alabama takes the victory and the glory, as they should, of eight consecutive wins over Tennessee.

But the most important thing that happened last night, long-term? Tennessee not only has a quarterback in the present.  Saturday night also gave you the idea - not the certainty, but certainly the idea - that its quarterback of the future might already be on the roster.

Dobbs completely erased the memories of his performance against Vanderbilt last year, which was the last we'd seen of him in meaningful action.  That was one of the worst games a starting quarterback has ever played at Tennessee.  Last night was one of the most surprising games a "starting" quarterback has ever played at Tennessee.  And the quotation marks are off now.

Again, don't chase the false narrative.  Nobody was calling for Josh Dobbs after the Georgia game. This isn't about why we haven't been playing Dobbs before now, the clear desire of the coaching staff to redshirt him and no evidence, last year or in practice based on every source, that he was outplaying the senior incumbent.  But with Justin Worley out indefinitely, having seen Dobbs do what he did last night against Alabama?  It feels very much like the present and the future are becoming one.

That's true in more ways than one.  The stat about Butch Jones facing ten Top 10 teams in his first twenty games has been making the rounds, and sure, it's crazy to look back at that.  But looking forward?  It has a chance to be different now.

The next time Tennessee plays a Top 10 team will be next year. And if Dobbs continues to progress, I think we all believe the Vols will be playing on more level ground when Oklahoma comes to Knoxville on September 12.  This is the big long-term win from last night:  instead of worrying about what we were going to do at quarterback and what we were going to do on the offensive line, now you have an idea, a vision of what it could be.  Dobbs' mobility was instant relief to an offensive line that struggled all year to protect a pocket passer and a huge boost to a one-dimensional running game that picked up 28 yards against Florida and an even zero at Ole Miss.  The Vols got 181 yards and 4.2 per carry against Alabama last night.

Between now and 2015 there is much to be played for, most importantly Tennessee's first bowl bid since 2010.  The Vols need three wins in their final four games.  The good news:  this isn't the November we've seen in the seasons since, nor does it resemble September or October.

South Carolina is 4-4.  Kentucky is better, no doubt, but I'm not sure they're as good as the Vanderbilt teams we've been facing the last few Novembers.  Missouri is 6-2 but certainly not the Missouri of 2013.  Vanderbilt is back to being the Vanderbilt we know and love.

None of these games will be easy and depending on how the first one goes the Vols may not even be favored in Vegas to reach six wins.  But we already knew, no matter what happened against Alabama, it would be good to see what both sides of the ball could do when they weren't playing Alabama or Ole Miss again.  And now, you get to see the most important question about the future try to find its answer in the present.

Josh Dobbs wasn't just a spark for the Tennessee offense, he was a spark for this fanbase and the rest of the season.  What will he do when defenses are a little more prepared for him?  We can't expect 11 out of 15 on third down every week.

But we also won't be seeing Top 10 opponents every week from here.  The Vols will spend the rest of 2014 playing teams more on their level, in hopes that as its quarterback and its team continues to grow, it can enter 2015 playing everyone on their level.

You just never know.  But it's suddenly a lot more hopeful to watch and find out.

Go Vols.