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How Much Is Four Yards Worth?

It was only one game and one Bowling Green defense, but we got a glimpse of the offense Butch Jones has been building for.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Overreaction is your only choice in week one.  We said before the game if the Vols scored 50 or 60 it shouldn't be treated as a revelation; Bowling Green gave up 40+ six times last fall and 68 to Wisconsin.  Facts will get much more concrete on both sides of the ball in one week.

Scoring 59 points isn't necessarily noteworthy; how the Vols got there is more interesting.  In a game which wasn't truly out of reach until the final ten minutes, Tennessee ran the ball 64 times compared to just 23 passing attempts.  It's the first time the Vols have cracked 60+ rushing attempts this decade, and possibly well beyond that.  Last year's high was 55 attempts at South Carolina, one of just three times Tennessee eclipsed 50 carries in 2014.  The only other time the Vols ran the ball against an FBS foe more than 50 times in the last seven years was at Vanderbilt in 2008 with three ineffective quarterbacks.

When we consider all four of Tennessee's 50+ rushing attempt games this decade have come with Josh Dobbs at quarterback in just his last six starts, we start to get a clearer picture of what Butch Jones really envisioned for this offense.  Some credit from yesterday certainly goes to Mike DeBord, who kept the chains moving early and often when at times it felt like the Vols would lose if they didn't score on every possession.  And an enormous piece of this puzzle is tempo, as we've seen the Vols get progressively faster from Justin Worley to Dobbs' first start last year through yesterday.  But Tennessee's transformation under Dobbs has had, at least in the box score, more to do with the ground game than anything else.

Yesterday had something to do with Alvin Kamara as well, who set a new record for a Vol debut with 144 rushing yards on just 15 carries, including what may have been the game's biggest play in the final minute of the third quarter.  His 56-yard touchdown run to put the Vols up three possessions for the first time since the initial 21-3 burst was just one example of the speed and elusiveness which now complement Jalen Hurd's more bruising style.  Dobbs hasn't just made the difference in the ground game by himself; the threat of his legs has created the true option game Tennessee and Butch Jones have been looking for.  Kamara, Hurd, and Dobbs combined for 50 carries, 356 yards, six touchdowns, and 7.12 yards per carry.  The quarterback had only a dozen of those carries; last year Dobbs only went below that number once, carrying it 10 times in the blowout over Kentucky but averaging 18.8 carries in his other five appearances.  This three-headed monster can help keep its most important member healthy.

More rushing attempts come with a faster tempo; playing off Bowling Green's style the Vols ran 87 plays yesterday.  It could have been more had Tennessee not accumulated 188 yards on five kick & punt returns.  These short fields kept the Vols from their first 400+ yard rushing game since 1994, the 65-0 drubbing of Vanderbilt which still stands as the largest modern era shutout of an existing FBS foe.

It won't always be exactly like this; Bowling Green's defense is lacking, and Dobbs is already experienced with going to the air to try to bring the Vols from behind against better foes.  But the idea that it could be generally like this is both new and exciting for Tennessee fans.

How do you feel about a four yard gain?  When the Vols have struggled to run the ball, as they have for much of the last five years, four yards feels like a nice surprise:  "Hey, alright, four yards, let's do that again!"  Last year the Vols averaged 3.6 yards per carry, 103rd nationally.  The run game was somewhat bolstered by an unusually strong offensive line in 2013 and an unusually strong passing game in 2012, but Tennessee hasn't had anything like this kind of outright threat in the backfield since Montario Hardesty in 2009.  And really, what we're seeing with this kind of ground game and this kind of tempo is something brand new for Tennessee.

In this offense, a four yard gain is underachievement.  Take away Hurd's one yard touchdown run, and 33 of the other 49 carries split between Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara went for more than four yards.

Is this just how it's going to be from now on?  If so we may find ourselves in more games like this one, and more games like Oregon and Auburn find themselves in, when you're sweating a one or two possession lead and too many points given up for about 2.5 quarters, but those five yard gains start turning into eight and any of them can break the game and a defense's spirit.  I think this is what Butch had in mind all the way back in December 2012, it's just taken this long to get the right pieces in place to set the right tempo.

We can only overreact right now, and that goes for running backs, defensive backs, and everything else.  But even if we only got an idea of what this offense believes it can's a very good idea.