The Vols lost 34-20 to Alabama on Saturday in a game that went like almost no one was expecting. After a performance against Ole Miss that was very much according to form (resulting in a relatively static trending report), things look a whole lot different after the contest with the Tide. Mostly because of the defense and Josh Dobbs.
- A Dobbs-led offense. Last year, Josh Dobbs started four games and played badly enough to make Tennessee fans pin their hopes on Riley Ferguson as the quarterback of the future. Everybody knew that Dobbs was more talented than Justin Worley, but the offense just performed better with Worley at the helm. Lots better. And for the first month of this season, Worley looked like he was doing a good job of leading the offense. But he struggled mightily against Florida and Ole Miss, and the Dobbs-led offense against Alabama was a revelation. Against Florida and Ole Miss, the Vols averaged 5.4 yards per pass, 14 yards rushing, and 6 points. Against Alabama, Dobbs averaged 6.0 yards per pass, had 75 yards rushing (Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd chipped in another 107), and led the offense to 20 points. And that was despite some clear missed opportunities. Dobbs just gives a new dimension to the Tennessee offense. His mobility prevents defenses from playing too aggressively, which shields a much-maligned offensive line, and he throws a better deep ball than Worley. Dobbs has, by all accounts, struggled with consistency, and some of that showed on Saturday. But he also showed that when he is playing well, he gives the Vols offense a gear they never knew they had.
- Resilience. When Alabama scored their fourth touchdown in eighteen minutes to go up 27-0 with 12 minutes left in the first half, it was the closest I have ever come to turning off a game in the first half [I am a pretty consistent 0:00 guy]. The Vols had shown a tendency to struggle when things went against them in the last couple games, and it's hard to get more against you than 27-0 in the second quarter (though not impossible). But the Vols regrouped and cut the Alabama lead to 10 points with over twenty minutes remaining in the contest. They weren't able to make the plays to close it out, but they fought back and made it a game.
- 2015 expectations. The defense is set up to be elite next year, but the offense has struggled immensely on the offensive line and at quarterback--both positions where it is very difficult for highly-touted true freshmen to make an impact. And with the Vols struggling to make progress at both positions, it was very much an open question whether or not the coaching was at the level needed to develop players for next year. This weekend didn't eliminate all of those questions, but Josh Dobbs has developed since last season, and he isn't going anywhere. If he can use this as a launch point and take strides forward, Tennessee could be very good in 2015.
- Pressure to win now. Last time Tennessee played tough against a quality opponent, it vaulted them into a favorite role in a game they needed to win to put themselves in position to reach bowl eligibility comfortably. The Vols responded with an absolute disaster performance and an inexcusable loss. This time, the Vols are eight-point underdogs going into a game in Columbia that's just as important to their bowl hopes. If Tennessee can't upset the Gamecocks for the second time in as many years, they'll come out of their bye week needing three wins in three games, and that's no easy task for a young team that has no experience winning competitive games. The games against Ole Miss and Alabama were all opportunity, no pressure. In November, the pressure is back.
- Shutting down #1 receivers. Tennessee's pass defense has been very good this season, mostly on the strength of #1 corner Cam Sutton, who has been a legit star in the defensive backfield. But just one week after holding Ole Miss #1 Laquon Treadwell to 43 yards on four catches, the Vols let Amari Cooper burn them to the tune of 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. While Sutton admittedly made an uncharacteristic mistake on Cooper's second touchdown, the Vols weren't even matching Sutton on Cooper early in the first quarter. Any time you give up four touchdowns in 18 minutes, your defense is struggling, but coordinator John Jancek definitely overthought this one.
- Third down defense. The Vols came into this game in the top ten in the country in third down defense. Against Alabama, they gave up 11 conversions on 15 attempts, including 9 of 10 on third and between three and nine. Three of those nine conversions came from the legs of Blake Sims, and Tennessee's inability to handle a dual-threat quarterback allowed the Tide to consistently gash the Vols on third and medium. It will help that Dylan Thompson is less mobile than Blake Sims, but if the Vols want a win in Columbia, the defense needs to bounce back in a big way.
- Making the easy plays. Tennessee has struggled in the month of October when their quarterback tried to be a hero. That didn't totally go away on Saturday--Dobbs was clearly pressing late in the game, as evidenced by a first down interception in double coverage. But even when he chose to make the easy throws, the consistency wasn't quite there. The most obvious miss was on a wide-open slant to Marquez North in the end zone that would've cut the Alabama lead to 10, but that wasn't the only one. Dobbs needs to improve his consistency, and when he makes the inevitable mistake, he needs to keep the poise he showed against Alabama and not compound it with the indecision we saw last November. And his pass-catchers need to help him--Ethan Wolf dropped a couple good passes across the middle, and Pig Howard let an admittedly tricky deep ball go off his hands.