From the early morning hours of November 2, 2014:
History is written by the winners, so the stories that will be told about this game will start on 3rd and 18 at the South Carolina 10 with five minutes to play. The Vols had been frustrating in the second half but were in it, down 35-28 and ready to get the ball back. And then "Third Down For What" became "Third Down for WHAT?!" as Dylan Thompson ran for 20 yards and an inexplicable first down. And on the very next play, Brandon Wilds gashed a vulnerable defense for 70 yards and the assumed back-breaker, 42-28 with 4:52 to play.
And then some of us went to bed. But over the next 4:52 and an overtime, Tennessee Football woke up in Columbia, South Carolina.
As we said later in the same story, the larger things that were true about Butch Jones and Tennessee’s program would have been true whether the Vols made that comeback in those five minutes or won in overtime 45-42. But truth is so much clearer in victory. And as it’s turned out, since that night Tennessee has been living into a new truth.
Since Josh Dobbs took the starting job full-time on this night two years ago, the Vols are 18-7. A .720 winning percentage may not seem that great on its own, but consider Phillip Fulmer went .745 in his 17-year career at Tennessee. And more importantly, before that night in Columbia two years ago the Vols were 36-46 in the previous six years and the first eight games of 2014.
Butch Jones and the Vols beat a better South Carolina team in 2013, but that win stands more in isolation, a dot harder to connect to what came later. But the 2014 win is a clear starting point of a run this team is still on, one that started with a late night fight for bowl eligibility and finds itself two years later with a team still in the SEC and playoff chase as November approaches.
Six of those seven losses since then are of the one possession variety, two in double overtime. Six of those seven came to Alabama twice, playoff-bound Oklahoma, undefeated Texas A&M, and the eventual SEC East winners in 2014 and 2015.
Even more important are the wins, and the fact that they have only gotten more impressive since beating 2014 South Carolina. Beating the Gamecocks helped the Vols get to the Taxslayer Bowl to blow out Iowa. In 2015 the Vols beat a ranked Georgia team then decimated #13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. This year the Vols beat a ranked Georgia team again, ended an 11-year streak against a ranked Florida team, and beat a now-ranked, now-division-favorite Virginia Tech squad.
The line isn’t finished; there are bigger wins out there including the opportunity that could be waiting in Atlanta in December. But what the Vols have done since that night in Columbia is what Butch Jones was hired to do.
And it is what we hoped Josh Dobbs could be and more.
Looking back on Dobbs, consider how unfair it was that, when thrown into the fire as a true freshman when Justin Worley went down against Alabama in 2013, his first college football action came against the Tide followed by eventual top five foes Missouri and Auburn. By the time we got to the Vanderbilt loss some of us (including me) were convinced Dobbs would never be the answer at quarterback. Now it sure looks like the question itself was ridiculous.
Dobbs’ 301 yards passing and 166 yards rushing at South Carolina two years ago now feels like the first of many dual-threat days. He dropped a 312/118 on Georgia last year and this year added a 319/80 on the #BDN from Florida and a 398/57 on Texas A&M. The quality of opponent Dobbs has had this kind of day against has certainly increased, but the 467 total yards he accounted for at South Carolina in 2014 remain a career high.
There will be more words for Dobbs on Senior Day and more opportunity for this team every week between now and then as long as it keeps winning. Winning at South Carolina two years later won’t mean as much on its own, but if the Vols want to continue on the path they started down two years ago, they have to win this game as its next step. This series has played only competitive games this decade and the last four have been decided by three points or less.
For that path to mean not just simple ascension but a championship, Butch Jones must go to 4-0 against South Carolina, 1-0 against Will Muschamp after 3-0 against Steve Spurrier’s teams plus-or-minus his in-season retirement last year. Beating the OBC for the last time at Florida was a bookend to Tennessee’s greatest run from 1989-2001. Beating him for the last time two years ago could continue to be the start of something really special for Tennessee again if this team continues to take care of business.