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Butch Jones, Josh Dobbs Reach Level Two

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Tennessee's exciting young quarterback prepares to face the first good defense that knows he's coming, and Butch Jones and the Vols try to take an important step up the ladder.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Rarely has doing what Tennessee teams historically do to Kentucky felt so good.  Getting win number five over the Wildcats allows Tennessee to think about making holiday arrangements in Nashville or Memphis with Vanderbilt in the hole.  But now an additional opportunity truly appears.

Missouri will be the 12th ranked team Butch Jones has faced in his first two years.  The head coach got his win over #11 South Carolina last year, but these last two Tennessee wins have a chance to resonate much more.  One a historic comeback featuring a historic performance, the next validation of both the statement win and the quarterback who led it.

Tennessee has a chance to do much more than play the spoiler Saturday night.  Bowl eligibility and eventual momentum will still be on the table regardless of the outcome, but a win against the Tigers would tighten the bonds between the present and the future.

What Dobbs and the Vols did to Kentucky yesterday felt like what Tyler Bray and the Vols did to Ole Miss in 2010:  a new quarterback comes in and instantly changes the dynamic, and the whole team responds with a blowout of an SEC foe.  Down the stretch four years ago Tennessee's young quarterback made you excited for both the present and the future.

You can feel good about Tennessee in 2015 because of the talent on its roster already.  Jalen Hurd should have a chance to get 1,000 yards in his freshman campaign.  Eighteen different Vols have caught a pass this year, and only four of them - two tailbacks, a fourth-string tight end, and Jacob Carter - are seniors.  Thirty-five Vols have recorded a tackle this year, and only three of them are seniors.  Derek Barnett is fifth nationally in tackles for loss and tenth in sacks.  Not for freshmen, for all people.

And then there's Josh Dobbs, who just followed up the first 300 yards passing/100 yards rushing game in school history with 19 of 27 for 297 yards, the highest yards per attempt for a Vol in an SEC game since Jonathan Crompton torched Georgia in 2009.  In three games Dobbs is 61 of 99 (61.6%) for 790 yards (8.0 YPA), 7 TDs and 2 INTs, plus 53 carries for 289 yards and four additional touchdowns.  If those numbers held over the course of an entire season he would be third in the SEC in completion percentage, fourth in yards per attempt, and second in passing yards per game.

So yes, you can believe in Josh Dobbs and you can believe in Tennessee.  But win on Saturday night, and faith will multiply.

It's one thing to hope 6-6 can turn into something more the next time around.  It's one thing to have a young quarterback like Bray come in and blow up a bunch of bad defenses.  It's another to ride a four (or five) game winning streak into the future, and to do so having beaten more than just South Carolina's league-worst defense and the usual November suspects.

It's Missouri's defense which has both carried it to the lead in the SEC East race and which will present the first real test for Josh Dobbs.  I know about Alabama, but there's a difference between knowing we have Dobbs on the roster and knowing he can do this.  It's the Tigers, far more than any of the other November opponents and almost all of the potential December opponents, who will present the truest test yet for Josh Dobbs, and thus the biggest measuring stick for Butch Jones and the Vols for the future.

Mizzou is third in the conference and 14th nationally in yards per play allowed, giving up less than five yards per play in every SEC game until the last one, which they still managed to win in College Station.  We've had a season-long discussion about who the best quarterback in the SEC East is, and though that honor may not be saying much right now you can certainly throw Dobbs in that mix.  Here's what Missouri's defense has done against other meaningful SEC quarterbacks:

  • Dylan Thompson 21 of 37 (56.7%) 219 yards (5.9 YPA) 1 TD 0 INT
  • Hutson Mason 23 of 29 (79.3%) 169 yards (5.8 YPA) 1 TD 0 INT
  • Patrick Towles 19 of 37 (51.3%) 158 yards (4.3 YPA) 1 TD 1 INT
  • Kyle Allen 24 of 35 (68.6%) 237 yards (6.8 YPA) 3 TD 1 INT
  • Combined:  87 of 138 (63.0%) 195.8 YPG (5.7 YPA) 6 TD 2 INT
Missouri is good at both keeping things in front of them and getting to the quarterback, second in the SEC with 32 sacks this year.  We've been letting ourselves believe Dobbs fixed most of the problems on the offensive line.  We'll know for sure Saturday night.

There is a conversation here about Tennessee's defense, which found its way back home against Kentucky, carrying the fight to Missouri's anemic offense.  We'll look at all that this week.  But the most interesting question for Tennessee's future pits Josh Dobbs and an offense suddenly averaging better than six yards per play against a defense with a strong pulse and something to play for.

Beating South Carolina pumped life into this program, and throttling Kentucky let you know it wasn't a flash in the pan.  Butch Jones and his staff have cleared level one of the rebuild on the field, winning the lower-level SEC games the Vols should win and doing so emphatically yesterday.  Saturday presents an opportunity to beat a better team playing with everything on the line.  Saturday is the chance to lay an important brick for the future.  Saturday is the next step.

If Tennessee can produce against this bunch, we'll have a much stronger belief we can produce against the good defenses on our schedule next year.  And if Tennessee can win this game, at home under the lights against a team playing for championships, we'll have a much stronger belief we can play for championships next year.