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Josh Dobbs vs Alabama Again, For the First Time

Great quarterback play has beaten Nick Saban's Alabama teams in the past; if it happens Saturday it will probably look a little different coming from Josh Dobbs and this Tennessee offense.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's hard to believe Saturday will be the third time Josh Dobbs has faced Alabama, but the first time he'll start.  Two years ago Justin Worley was lost for the year in a game the Tide led 35-0; with Riley Ferguson injured Joshua Dobbs took his first college snap against the Crimson Tide, going 5 of 12 for 75 yards with an additional 19 yards rushing on three carries.  Last year Nathan Peterman got the start, but Dobbs got the headlines:  Alabama jumped to a 27-0 lead, but Dobbs responded with 19 of 32 for 192 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns, plus 19 carries for 75 yards as the Vols battled it back to respectability in a 34-20 loss.

How ready Alabama was for Dobbs last year is up for debate, but will be meaningless Saturday:  I'm pretty sure they're going to be ready for him this time.

In July we looked at the common thread among the teams to beat Alabama in the last seven years.  The strongest trend:  get great play from your quarterback.  From that story, here's a look at the numbers of each of the guys to do it:

Year Opponent Score Quarterback Comp Att Yds TD INT YPA BAMA DEF AVG YPA
2008 Florida 31-20 Tim Tebow 14 22 216 3 0 9.8 5.7
2008 Utah 31-17 Brian Johnson 27 41 336 3 0 8.2 5.7
2010 South Carolina 35-21 Stephen Garcia 17 20 201 3 1 10.1 6.2
2010 LSU 24-21 J. Jefferson/J. Lee 14 20 208 1 0 10.4 6.2
2010 Auburn 28-27 Cam Newton 13 20 216 3 0 10.8 6.2
2012 Texas A&M 29-24 Johnny Manziel 24 31 253 2 0 8.2 6.1
2013 Auburn 34-28 Nick Marshall 11 16 97 2 0 6.1 6.6
2013 Oklahoma 45-31 Trevor Knight 32 44 348 4 1 7.9 6.6
2014 Ole Miss 23-17 Bo Wallace 18 31 251 3 0 8.1 6.4
2014 Ohio State 42-35 Cardale Jones 18 35 243 1 1 6.9 6.4
AVG 32-24 19 28 237 2.5 0.3 8.7 6.2

Add in Chad Kelly this year and the pattern holds:  18 of 33 for 341 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.  His 10.3 yards per attempt give him the best day for any quarterback throwing it more than 20 times against the Tide in Nick Saban's run, and a script that looks like an improved version of what Cardale Jones did:  so-so completion percentage, but the ones that did land were huge.

As we know, Tennessee doesn't do the deep ball.  The Vols have just three completions of 40+ yards this year, the same number as Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.  What Tennessee does have is a multi-dimensional run game, which leads the SEC in attempts per game and is second only to Leonard Fournette and LSU in yards per game.  And here our quarterback can be a difference-maker in a number of ways.

When we wrote that story in July, it came with the assumption that Dobbs would make some natural progression as a passer.  The jury may still be out on that portion, but we do know Tennessee's risk-management offense has kept him from turning it over through the air:  one overtime pick against Oklahoma, one deflected ball against Georgia, and that's it.  Dobbs may not be a noticeably better passer than he was a year ago, but Tennessee has also protected him well because they believe they can win with 48.3 rushing attempts per game.

Not getting yourself beat and beating Alabama are certainly two different things; Greyson Lambert also has just two interceptions on the year and had Nick Chubb behind him, and things did not go well for the Dawgs against these guys.  If Dobbs is going to get Tennessee in the conversation for a different result, he will need to be great with his legs once again.

This isn't breaking news, but look at the difference in Dobbs' rushing totals in wins vs losses in FBS games he started the last two years:

Opponent Score Att Yds Avg
at South Carolina W 45-42 24 166 6.9
Kentucky W 50-16 10 48 4.8
Missouri L 29-21 17 13 0.8
at Vanderbilt W 24-17 21 91 4.3
vs Iowa W 45-28 13 76 5.9
vs Bowling Green W 59-30 12 89 7.4
Oklahoma L 31-24 14 12 0.9
at Florida L 28-27 18 136 7.6
Arkansas L 24-20 7 7 1.0
Georgia W 38-31 18 118 6.6

This is the most obvious trend with Dobbs.  Take away the Florida game, which the Vols should have closed out a number of different ways that had little to do with the quarterback, and you've got 38 carries for 32 yards in the losses.  In wins, Dobbs is averaging 16.3 carries, 98 yards, and just over six yards per carry.

Obviously some of this is sacks allowed, which was especially the case against Missouri last year.  This is particularly dangerous when dealing with an Alabama team averaging 3.1 sacks per game.  But the Vols have been better in this area this year, giving up a middle-of-the-road 1.8 sacks per game instead of the horrendous 3.3 they allowed per contest last year.  Some of this is play-calling, some of it Dobbs, and some of it is improvement up front.

To give themselves a chance against Alabama, the Vols must both play to their run strengths offensively and take advantage of the passing game trends that have bested the Tide repeatedly.  Is Dobbs up to the challenge?  Coming off arguably the best game of his career, the Vols will need both his steady presence in the run game and him to land some key shots in the passing game.  It's a tall task; against Alabama you'd expect nothing less.  If Dobbs is going to add his name to the list of quarterbacks to have taken down the Crimson Tide, he'll have to do it a little differently than we imagined in the off-season.  But he might still be up to the task.