Teams with superior quarterback play compete for championships; teams with mediocre quarterback play do not.
Tennessee's quarterback play, like its record, was mediocre in 2013. So, if the Vols are to improve significantly from 2013 to 2014 they must get considerably better play from the position next fall than they did last fall.
With Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and freshman Joshua Dobbs sharing the QB duties, Tennessee finished 2013 with a woeful 105.48 passer-efficiency rating and more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (12). The Vols averaged just 18.0 points in eight SEC games en route to a third consecutive 5-7 overall record. Worley completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with 10 TDs and 8 interceptions. Peterman was 10 of 23 for 45 yards with 2 interceptions. Dobbs completed 59.5 percent for 695 yards but threw 6 picks against just 2 touchdowns.
Worley posted the Vols' best passer-efficiency rating at 117.39 but still didn't finish among the top 15 SEC quarterbacks. Even lowly Kentucky had two QBs more efficient than that – Maxwell Smith (131.1) and Jalen Whitlow (120.4).
Just for the sake of comparison, LSU's Zach Mettenberger led the SEC with a 171.4 efficiency rating. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel ranked second at 170.4, followed by Alabama's A.J. McCarron at 165.9, Georgia's Aaron Murray at 158.8, South Carolina's Connor Shaw at 156.2, Missouri's James Franklin at 152.4 and Auburn's Nick Marshall at 144.0.
For those keeping score at home, the teams those QBs directed posted a combined 69-17 record, an average of roughly 10 wins and 2 losses per team.
That raises the obvious question: How will Tennessee's quarterback play be in 2014? Certainly, it should be better than it was in 2013. The fact all four scholarship QBs will have a full year in Butch Jones' zone-read offense should help each to make progress in Year 2.
"Any time you have that valuable of experience being in that system for a year and being involved in a program for over a year (it helps)," Jones said recently. "Some (Dobbs and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson) will be in their first spring practice. Continuity and consistency is critical, so having those individuals in the system for a year will expedite the learning curve."
Whereas QB coach Mike Bajakian spent the spring of 2013 teaching the basics of the zone-read attack, he'll be able to move on to more advanced lessons in the spring of 2014. That should greatly accelerate the growth of Tennessee's quarterbacks.
As Jones put it, "They are able to focus more on the fundamentals and fine details that it takes to play winning football at the quarterback position."
Although spring practice will be a proving ground of sorts, the four scholarship QBs can take significant strides during the current holiday break if they focus on one goal:
"While they are away it is self accountability, improving each and every day," Jones said. "Throwing on their own while they are on break, working out."
Once they return to campus, the four QBs must set a high standard, meet it, then make sure the rest of the team is on the same page.
"Once they get back, (the focus is) overall leadership, the fine details that it takes, the quarterback characteristics that it takes," Jones said. "From a leadership standpoint, the ability to lead in the weight room, the ability to lead in the classroom, living their life the right way, being an example."
Heading into the 2013 season Tennessee had just three starts at the quarterback position (all by Worley in 2011). By comparison, Tennessee will go into the 2014 season with a more experienced crew. Worley now has 10 starts, Dobbs four and Peterman one.
Jones counts on his quarterback to be a cornerstone on offense, a steady performer who provides a calming influence on the other players.
"The quarterback should be the example," Jones said. "They are the equivalent of a coach when they are on the field. It is their football program."
In addition to a strong, accurate arm, Jones wants a player who exhibits "the command presence that it takes as a quarterback, doing things the right way and the high level of consistency. We talk about consistency in performance. That is extremely critical at every position but it is really critical in winning football games at the quarterback position."
Although a stress fracture kept Ferguson from playing as a freshman last fall, he showed loads of potential when healthy. He'll get every opportunity to win the job this spring.
"Once we get into specific drills and spring football it is who manages our offense the best, who takes care of the football and who can create plays," Jones said. "It is going to be an ongoing process and that evaluation tool already started (following the finale at Kentucky) when we hit the ground running."