Did I hear that right?

Tennessee vs Missouri

Saturday November 22, 2014 | Neyland Stadium | 7:30 pm | ESPN

The Missouri Tigers are nearing their second consecutive appearance in the SEC Championship game as the conference’s East champion. Last season, the Tigers won their last four contests to make it to Atlanta, beginning with a thrashing of the Vols in Columbia. This season Mizzou has to defeat Tennessee on Saturday night and then dispose of Arkansas to make the title game a reality again.

Tennessee is just trying to get to a bowl game. Any bowl game. One more win of its last two and the Vols will be playing post-season football for the first time in four years.

So it would seem as Saturday’s game under the Neyland Stadium lights would be a one-sided affair for the visitors based on their relative positions heading to the end of the regular season.

But wait… Tennessee is favored by 3 or 4 points depending on the oddsmaker. Did I hear that right?

Apparently I did. But why?

It all comes down to two things: (1) Neyland Stadium, and (2) Josh Dobbs.

The interesting thing about Version 2.0 of Team 118 is that we really don’t know how good they are.

And that is exciting. For now. Because we are going to find out Saturday.

And I say they are pretty good, but perhaps not good enough to keep Mizzou out of Atlanta, but good enough to play some December football (the Vols, barring injury, will roll Vandy).

Missouri 32 Tennessee 27

 

Why we can’t have nice things, nor cast stones

Tennessee 50 Kentucky 16

Unfortunately I couldn’t watch the game live and had to wait until this evening. But I had no knowledge of any football scores, so it was just like a Saturday afternoon this Monday evening. And of course after watching the game, I read some articles to catch up on Vols news, which caused me to once again to ask myself why I care at all…

First the game.

I remember the annual Kentucky game over the years as a hard-hitting affair. And the 2014 installment was no different. It seemed like there were bodies down every other play.

It was a fun game to watch. Tennessee doesn’t win games 50 to 16 very often anymore. But what is even better is watching the future.

Astro Dobbs completed 19 of 27 passes for 297 yards, including 3 TDs and no INTs. He also averaged nearly 5 yards per carry on 10 runs, one of which was a touchdown.

Jalen Hurd just keeps getting better and better while running for 129 yards on 25 carries, including a TD. And he’s starting to remind me of Montario Hardesty in the way that he finishes runs with strength.

Wide receivers Von Pearson, Jason Croom, and Pig Howard had productive performances.

Freshman DE Derek Barnett is starting to remind me of a former Vol DE whose number and name is featured on the rim in Neyland Stadium.

And Tennessee has truly discipline on the field. The Vols were flagged only three times.

But Tennessee off the field is unfortunately becoming a different kind of story…

*****

Linebacker A. J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams were suspended Monday from all team activities for being part of an investigation into an alleged rape and sexual assault after Saturday’s game. No charges have been filed against either player. County prosecutors will decide that detail after the Knoxville Police Department finishes their investigation and hands it over to the District Attorney.

Two women are apparently involved – one woman indicating that she had been raped by two males and the other woman saying that she was a victim of sexual assault. The woman who indicated she was raped is a UT student and she met with police. The other woman that reported she was the victim of a sexual assault has decided not to prosecute and returned to Florida where she attends college.

Regardless of the legal details, it is highly disturbing to hear about A. J. Johnson being involved in this news, mainly because of how he has been portrayed as a leader. If charges are filed, which will reflect compelling evidence, I hope Mr. Johnson is immediately expelled from the University, all his records erased from the book, and his letterman’s pin taken from him.

And the same goes for Mr. Williams.

It’s the second year of Butch Jones’ tenure as Tennessee Head Coach. He needs to be decisive and unwavering in his commitment to all of the things he says about building a program full of young men with character. Jones must be willing to risk anything and everything by telling the Athletic Department that he will not tolerate this kind of thing.

The University is not a court of law – you shouldn’t have to be found guilty of a crime before being excommunicated and your name forever erased from the school’s memory.

In cases like this, especially when it comes to domestic abuse/rape/sexual assault, the number one rule is no mercy. None.

What’s at stake on Saturday?

Kentucky at Tennessee

Saturday November 15, 2014 | Knoxville | 4:00pm EST

*****

The Vols have defeated the ‘Cats 28 of the last 29 meetings of this historic border rivalry. Tennessee dominance notwithstanding, these two teams will meet each other with nearly equal records (Big Blue with 5-5/2-5; Big Orange with 4-5/1-4).

But if there is such a thing as momentum in sports, right now the Vols seem to have it and the Wildcats don’t.

Joshua Dobbs has breathed new life into a comatose Tennessee offense. And last week’s break in the schedule will help heal some bruises and fatigue.

On the other side, Kentucky hasn’t had an off week in a couple of months and has lost their last four games by an average of 23 points.

What’s at stake on Saturday? The winner of this game (Kentucky for sure; Tennessee probably) will secure their first bowl bid since 2010. Dreadfully for the Wildcats, one more win for six victories and a bowl bid has been the rallying cry for the last month. A loss to the Vols Saturday and to Louisville in two weeks to close the season will keep the ‘Cats stuck on the nickel.

It looks like the game in Knoxville might be the fourth sellout of Neyland Stadium this season. Utah State, Florida, and Alabama were the previous sellouts. A full house against Kentucky would be a welcome turnaround of late season empty seats that have featured in Knoxville over the past few seasons.

And who knows but a full house on Saturday might be the difference between a bowl game and a fourth consecutive bowl-less season for Tennessee.

Here’s to changes in fortune…

Tennessee 29 Kentucky 17

Can we start over?

Tennessee 45  South Carolina 42 (OT)

Football teams, football programs… they don’t transform overnight. But sometimes it can seem that way.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones hugs running back Jalen Hurd (1) after their 45-42 win in overtime against South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 in Columbia, S.C.  (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Tennessee coach Butch Jones hugs running back Jalen Hurd (1) after their 45-42 win in overtime against South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 in Columbia, S.C. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

South Carolina looked like they had the Vols done and dusted after Brandon Wilds ran right through Tennessee’s defensive line untouched on the way to a 70 yard TD run with just less than 5 minutes remaining on the game clock. It was a 42-28 Gamecock lead, and it looked simply like more of the same for a Volunteer football program that was wondering if there were even lower lows to be reached before ultimate recovery from years of decline and atrophy.

You couldn’t blame a soul for giving up at that moment.

But the players didn’t. And their coaches certainly didn’t.

What happened in those final five minutes was certainly a reflection of the Butch Jones era and a turnaround from the miserable fourth quarters the Vols suffered under three years of Derek Dooley.

What struck me the most was how methodical it was… no miracle plays, no onside kicks recovered (we tried), no turnovers (one was missed by the officials), no lopsided field position (Vols began deep in their own territory). Just two offensive drives of brilliant execution and one big defensive 3-and-out stop.

Both of Tennessee’s final possessions ended up with TDs. One drive started on the Vol 20 and took only 3:02. The second, game-tying drive took only 1:12 on 9 plays that started on the Tennessee 15 yard line!

And there were only two 3rd down situations for the Vols in both drives combined.

Combining both drives, Pig Howard caught 4 passes, Jalen Hurd caught 3, and Jason Croom corralled the game-tying TD pass with only 11 ticks left on the clock.

Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs transformed the fortunes of the 2014 Vols with a performance for the ages.

Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs transformed the fortunes of the 2014 Vols with a performance for the ages.

But it was sophomore QB Joshua Dobbs that stole the hearts of Vol fans everywhere looking cool and collected. For the two last possessions in regulation time, Dobbs threw for 130 yards, completing 10 of 15 passes. He looked more like a fifth year senior that had been doing this for years.

For the evening, Dobbs ran for 166 yards and was 23-of-40 passing for 301 yards. He set the school mark for single-game rushing by a quarterback, breaking the record of 106 yards by the late Jimmy Streater in 1979. True freshman Jalen Hurd ran for 125 yards, resulting in two Vols runners each having over 100 yards for the first time in five years.

The Vols finished with 645 yards of offense, a total unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago.

But that was before Joshua Dobbs became Tennessee’s number one quarterback and before this 2014 squad suddenly became Joshua Dobbs’ team.

Once a third-string quarterback to finish out the 2014 season as a redshirt, Dobbs’ performance Saturday night on a cold night in Columbia was simply transformative. It put a bounce in everyone’s step, a heaping load of confidence that Tennessee can go to a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

And it prompted the most obvious of questions: Where has Joshua Dobbs been all this time?

It was clearly a calculated strategy of Butch Jones to somehow get through the 2014 season while preserving an extra year of eligibility for Dobbs via the redshirt strategy. But plans have a way of disintegrating into thin air due to circumstances — an injury to the number one and the total ineptitude of the number two.

It wasn’t some brilliant decision that caused this to happen. Circumstances forced the hand of the coaching staff. Luck notwithstanding, the Vols’ near miracle on Saturday night left many wondering how different the outcomes against Florida and against Georgia might have been had Mr. Dobbs been the man in charge.

It really doesn’t serve any constructive purpose to dwell on that possibility. Instead, Tennessee is not yet bowl eligible. The Vols, after this coming and well needed bye week, have to win two of their last three contests. Luckily, two of the three are at home with the two games in Knoxville against the best of the three opponents. So nothing is settled yet — there is a lot of work yet to be done to crown the 2014 season as a success (yes, a 6-win season would be a success in the eyes of this long-time observer).

But what now seems brightly possible seemed totally impossible with a little less than 5 minutes remaining in Saturday night’s game. That was until Josh Dobbs and company took over and gave VolNation one of the most memorable finishes in many, many years.

*******

UPDATE (11/3/2014): Josh Dobbs was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week.

Is this a bigger game for Tennessee or South Carolina?

Tennessee at South Carolina

Saturday November 1, 2014 | Columbia, SC | 7:30pm EDT | SEC Network

Last season’s shining star was Tennessee’s upset of ninth-ranked South Carolina 23-21 on a last-second field goal. But it wasn’t enough to get the Vols to a bowl. Saturday, Tennessee (3-5; 0-4) travels to Columbia having to win three of its last four games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. And if they don’t, 2014 will be a fifth straight losing season for the Vols, the longest such drought in program history.

Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks (4-4; 2-4) have a bit at stake themselves. They need to win half of their remaining games to go bowling. Not making a bowl game would break the OBC’s streak of nine seasons with a bowl-eligible season at South Carolina.

Last week, South Carolina came close to upsetting sixth-ranked Auburn, and Tennessee outscored Alabama 20-7 after being behind 0-27 early in the second quarter.

So both teams are coming off of losses to better opponents, and both the Vols and Gamecocks have a lot at stake in the 2014 edition of a series where the average margin of victory has been 8+ points since 2000, the narrowest in any SEC series. And it’s been a while since the Vols have beaten South Carolina down in Columbia — you have to go back to 2006 for Tennessee’s last win (31-24) in the Palmetto State.

So, which team has more at stake Saturday night?

You would think it was the Gamecocks based on their decision to wear all-black uniforms this week, both jerseys and pants. As Spurrier said this week, “Maybe it’ll put a little inspiration in our guys, who knows. We need something to get us a little bit more motivated.” Three straight conference losses aren’t sitting well with the OBC. So South Carolina will don the black tops and black pants combo for the first time since 2009 when they lost to Florida (24-14). They last wore black jerseys (but with white pants) against Auburn in 2011 and also wore them against the Vols in 2008 in a game that was perhaps the last straw for Phil Fulmer as Vols head coach. But the Gamecocks have lost five of their last six games wearing the black tops.

For the Vols, this week isn’t about uniforms (personally I hope I never see the Smokey Grays again). Instead, it’s about an offense that suddenly sprang to life under third-string QB Josh Dobbs. Last week, the Sophomore signal caller led his team to a season high in rushing yards, and his style of play completely took Nick Saban’s team (at Saban’s admission) off guard as they were completely unprepared for a Dobbs-lead attack in Knoxville last week.

The chances of Spurrier and Co. being unprepared for Dobbs and Co. this week is zero.

So maybe the Vols should counter and wear black, too… remember when Kiffin and Tennessee did a Halloween night upset special of South Carolina? Yes. And those were the most hideous jerseys I’ve ever seen. On any team.

But enough about apparel. This is a bigger game for Tennessee and Butch Jones who really must get to six wins and a bowl to stave off the wolves who are beginning to be heard off in the distance calling for immediate improvement. The honeymoon is effectively over for Jones and his staff. We’ve now entered the second phase of the Butch Era that demands winning seasons. Or else.

I’m afraid that Tennessee will have to win its final three games this season in order to play more football in December.

Josh Dobbs is not the ticket, yet, and is certainly no longer a surprise factor.

South Carolina 34 Tennessee 27

 

 

 

Chicken, egg, or circumstance?

We’ve reached the most interesting point of the season. There is a renewed sense of hope based on three quarters of play against an archrival. But upon what is that hope based? And will that hope still be there before kickoff in Columbia Saturday night?

After the first 6 minutes this past Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, both Alabama and Tennessee had garnered two possessions. Blake Simms and Amari Cooper had hooked up for two long TD passes (80 and 41 yards). Nathan Peterman had hooked up with Von Pearson and Jalen Hurd for two short, inconsequential completions. It was 13-0 and the season was already over.

Third string QB Josh Dobbs trotted onto the field, smoke boiling off of his burning red shirt. For the next 12 minutes, it was more of the same as the Vols did little with the ball and Alabama scored 2 more TDs to make it 27-0.

27-0. And there were nearly three entire quarters to play.

Then something happened.

The Big Orange proceeded to outscore and mostly outplay the Crimson Tide for the remainder of the game, to the tune of 20 Tennessee points to 7 Alabama points. The Vols came away with their heads held high following a spread-beating 34-20 loss.

It seemed that the 2014 season had taken its last breath when Josh Dobbs with his scintillating play created a visual memory of senior QB Justin Worley as a stationary punching bag. Dobbs dropped back. Dobbs rolled out. Dobbs threw. Dobbs ran. Dobbs faked Tide defenders out of their personal protective equipment.

Dobbs led the Vols in rushing yardage (75) and passing yardage (192). Dobbs led the Vols to a scoresheet that statistically looked fairly even against one of the best teams in the country.

Dobbs gave the VolNation a reason to believe that something good might come out of this 2014 season.

What happened, exactly, that caused this turnaround of team performance with fascinating immediacy?

That has been the talk of the town ever since late Saturday night. Until today that is.

Is Dobbs that much of a better quarterback for this particular team? Or was it the beleaguered offensive line that had recently been reconfigured to allow such production?

Or was it the simple circumstance of Alabama being up 27-0 and ‘relaxing’ as Nick Saban indicated at halftime?

Like a lot of things in sports, it was probably a little bit of all of those and more.

And with the team and fans seemingly supercharged even after a loss, there was that old friend expectation that raised its head up from the collective hands of this fan base, ready to predict a table run on the way to 7 wins and a bowl appearance.

You could feel Butch Jones sensed it all as he took to the podium for his weekly Monday press conference. His tone was pendantic, objective, and uber-realistic. There were no unqualified praises. There were even criticisms.

It was like Derek Dooley had returned to make one more appearance in front of the Knoxville press corps.

Butch Jones now knows very well how dangerous of a place Knoxville really is. He understands this fan base through and through. And he is not about to give juicy morsels of hope. Instead, he brings you into his world, the world of teaching a young group of athletes how to be winners. Because none of them know. All they know is 5 and 7. And he doesn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes.

Mr. Jones certainly wasn’t about to crown Josh Dobbs as the savior of the season, or even as next week’s starting quarterback.

Nope. Instead it’s back to the process of competition for starting spots, the process of getting ready for a road game against a notable but beatable opponent.

One day at a time.

But, that’s not a headline. That is boring.

Until today, when the best that the writers could do was publish a rumor that Butch Jones is one of four possible candidates to replace Brady Hoke at Michigan should he be fired in December, or sooner. And they actually asked Butch Jones about it.

We went from ‘who’s our starting quarterback?’ to ‘who’s our next head coach?’ in just one day.

The insanity never stops.

Just another day in Volville.

What would you do with a rotten tomato?

Alabama at Tennessee

Saturday October 25, 2014 | Knoxville, TN | 7:30 EST

Just another Top 5 opponent for the 2014 Tennessee Vols who appear to be on life support.

This time it’s bitter rival Alabama who comes to Knoxville for a tilt under the lights. Alabama has beaten the Vols by at least 30 points each of the last four meetings. After Saturday, that streak is likely to grow to five.

As good as the Vols defense is, it eventually wears down under the weight of a totally inept offense, led by a young offensive line, now beat up with injuries, that has allowed an SEC-worst 30 sacks.

The next worst in the conference has surrendered 16.

They are so beat up that fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam has had to play. With a torn ACL.

There has been a lot of talk about Josh Dobbs this week. Should his red shirt be burned?

First, I don’t know how good Josh Dobbs really is. He didn’t show well in his games he played in last season, and reports indicate that he lags behind Nathan Peterman in practice week after week.

That’s where we are. As one Knoxville radio host said this week, Tennessee’s offense is in a state of triage.

This week, we have even less hope than last week, when we had very little.

So that makes the return of a former Tennessee head coach to Knoxville this Saturday the main focus of this great rivalry. That’s what we’ve sunk to.

That single year (2009) Lane Kiffin was the head coach, the Vols went 7-6, the last winning season by the orange. They went 4-4 in conference play, a record that now would cause parties to spontaneously break out throughout the Volunteer State. Since riots broke out after Kiffin, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, announced he was leaving Tennessee for the West Coast, the Vols have beaten one ranked team and reached one bowl game.

I’m no Lane Kiffin fan. But if I had a rotten tomato, I wouldn’t throw it at Lane Kiffin just to make myself feel good. I would instead extract its seeds and plant them, nurture their growth, and make sure they grow to be giant plants that will bear fruit to nourish the masses for many years to come.

Vols football on-field performance hasn’t quite reached the bottom. We are soon going to be worse in terms of W’s and L’s than any of the Derek Dooley teams — not only will we not go to a bowl game, but we will most likely set the school record for the most losses in a season.

Then things will improve.

But not now.

Alabama 34 Tennessee 0

p.s., note that my metaphor used tomatoes, not bamboo.

 

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