Last season, Tennessee found itself facing a difficult task in Week 8. The Volunteers faced mighty Alabama — which entered at No. 4 overall — and needed to solve their quarterback situation.
Senior starter Justin Worley suffered a career-ending injury and was officially ruled out shortly before the kickoff. Redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman got the start, despite showing little promise during his previous sporadic appearances.
Peterman lasted two drives and threw for 10 yards on 2-of-4 passing. He was benched for Josh Dobbs, a sophomore quarterback who was on pace to redshirt during his second season.
Instead he took the reins and gave new life to Tennessee’s offense. Dobbs threw for 192 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on 19 of 32 passing and rushed for 75 yards on 19 attempts in his 2014 debut.
Tennessee trailed Alabama 13-0 before Dobbs entered the game and eventually 20-0 before he found a rhythm. But with the dual-threat quarterback in, the Vols cut the deficit to as little as 10.
Now, Dobbs enters his first game against the Tide as Tennessee’s starting quarterback. There are still questions about whether he’s capable of being a threat as a downfield passer, but there’s no denying his playmaking ability.
But Dobbs is coming off a five-touchdown performance against Georgia that saw him throw for 312 yards and rush for 118. He also has the intelligence — by now you’ve heard, but he’s a Aerospace Engineering major — and has the leadership qualities asked for in a starting quarterback.
“He had a good game against us last year,” Saban told the Tennessean. “… He’s gotten better and you can tell he’s got a great understanding of what the expectation is for him and what he needs to do on offense.
“It looks like he’s a very good leader. I see the players responding positively to him, and I don’t think there’s any question that the guy is really playing well and has had a great year so far.”
So the ability to excel in both areas is there, but he needs to be trusted by his coaches.
Tennessee hasn’t thrown downfield much in 2015. Some speculate that it’s a way to mask Dobbs’ flaws as a deep passer.
But the quarterback has excelled when allowed to throw downfield. Alabama ranks as the SEC’s top rushing defense with 70.9 yards allowed per game.
Dobbs will need to be a passing threat in order for Tennessee’s running game to excel. Plus, Alabama has struggled most against mobile quarterbacks.
Granted, its worst showings under Saban have been against the likes of Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel — both Heisman winners — the best way to beat Alabama is with a dual-threat quarterback in a spread offense.
Tennessee must take advantage of this. It won’t have a chance with 30 screen passes and a quarterback option on every play.
Butch Jones and Mike DeBord need to be creative. That’s what put them ahead against Oklahoma and Florida and a lack of aggressive play calling is what cost them.
The Vols haven’t defeated an Alabama team since 2006, one year before Nick Saban’s arrival. Dobbs will need to play well for Tennessee to snap its losing streak and pull off the upset in Tuscaloosa.