Since 2008 only 11 teams have beaten Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. As we saw in last year’s game preview, the common denominator is great quarterback play. Signal callers to beat Alabama in that span have averaged nearly nine yards per pass attempt and thrown an amazing 28 touchdowns to three interceptions.
Since the Vols and Tide last met no one else has beaten Alabama, and no one since had beaten Tennessee until last week.
Can Josh Dobbs be that guy?
This run Tennessee is on can be traced back to the last time the Crimson Tide were in Knoxville, or at least after the first quarter. As Alabama ran off to a 27-0 lead, the Vols inserted the then-sophomore Dobbs to replace Nathan Peterman. Tennessee’s new quarterback finished the night 19 of 32 for 192 yards and a pair of touchdowns, plus 75 yards on 19 carries as the Vols rallied but fell 34-20. Last year in Tuscaloosa the Tide limited Dobbs’ rushing yardage via their pass rush, but he still threw for 171 yards on 13 of 22 passing (7.8 ypa) in Tennessee’s 19-14 near miss.
In 2016 the Vols have allowed Dobbs to open things up more, an effort certainly unhampered by Tennessee falling behind by 10+ points in five games so far. After a more conservative passing effort yielded just 15 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2015, in six games this year Dobbs has thrown 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. These are the risks that come with rewards: Dobbs averages eight yards per attempt (up from 6.7 last year) and has averaged nine yards per attempt the last three weeks while throwing for 947 yards against Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M.
Since Dobbs became the full-time starter the week after Alabama in 2014, the Vols are 12-2 against power conference foes when he runs for 35+ yards and 1-4 when he doesn’t. The one in 1-4 was the hail mary against Georgia; the two in 12-2 featured five Florida fourth down conversions last year and seven Vol turnovers last week. Getting him involved in the run game is the most consistent predictor of success for the Vols.
But Tennessee has also had much more success hitting big plays in the pass game this year. Last year Dobbs hit 30 20+ yard pass plays in 13 games. This year Dobbs has hit 23 of them in the first six games against teams with a combined record of 25-8.
And Alabama has been softer in allowing big plays in general. The Tide have given up 26 20+ yard plays this season, 73rd nationally. And they are 126th in IsoPPP defensively, suggesting opportunities for big plays are certainly more present than usual with Tide defenses.
Big plays will be a big deal on the other side of the ball as well. This isn’t your slightly older brother’s Alabama offense: 37 plays of 20+ yards, ninth in the country. Tennessee’s shiny big-play-prevention defense took a beating at Texas A&M, as the Aggies hit 10 such 20+ yard plays. A&M excels in that department and the Vol defense is more tattered than ever. But they’ll get no sympathy from Lane Kiffin.
This thing could turn into more of what we saw last week and what the Tide saw against Ole Miss. If that’s the case, Tennessee will need Josh Dobbs to once again be the architect. I would maintain the Vols are so dangerous offensively because they make you account for absolutely everything, which only became possible when the coaches took the cuffs off their quarterback and he responded with lots of big throws. If Dobbs can help the Vols out-big-play Alabama, the quarterback who sparked this run against the Tide two years ago will get to write an incredible climactic chapter.
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Hot Chicken Sandwich: chicken breast, bacon marmalade, greek yogurt mixed with mayo, dill, glazed donut