Saturday marks the third time that Tennessee junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs will face No. 8-ranked Alabama — only this time, as the starter.
This time around, his improved set of skills combined with greater fluency among his teammates gives potential that the third time could be the charm to lead his team to victory.
In the 2013 season, the then-freshman made his first college debut in Tuscaloosa, playing the entire second half in a 45-10 loss.
Last fall, after Justin Worley went down with a shoulder injury in Oxford, Mississippi, Dobbs moved up the depth chart again and made his season debut versus the Crimson Tide.
Nathan Peterman got the start in a 34-20 loss to Alabama last season in Knoxville but Dobbs racked up 75 rushing yards — a then-career high for the young quarterback. That number also served as the most rushing yards by any Tennessee quarterback since Tee Martin in 1998.
Dobbs and sophomore running back Jalen Hurd are one of the Southeastern Conference’s most productive tandems as both rank in the top 12 of the league’s leading rushers. They account for a total of 940 of the Vols’ 1,332 rushing yards.
“Offensively, I believe we're up with 18 explosive runs of 20 yards or more as compared to 11 this time last year,” third-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “So we've done some very good things offensively.”
Against then-No. 19 Georgia, Dobbs rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
The Alpharetta, Georgia, native’s maturity over the last two years — both physically and mentally — could give him an edge on Saturday’s game. Jones commented on his field general’s improvements since the first time Dobbs stepped foot on the field in Tuscaloosa.
"First of all, you just have to look at the before and after pictures of his body and how much he has matured from a physicality standpoint, putting the extra weight that he needs on,” Jones said.
“There’s a high level of confidence that he plays with and the players around him have, and the confidence he has in the players around him. It is completely different. Josh has earned that right and he has worked very hard for that."
Alabama dropped from ranking second in the SEC in passing defense to fifth after facing Texas A&M, and this may prove to be an opportune time for Dobbs to connect with his receivers.
During Tennessee’s upset of Georgia, the passing attack proved stout with 312 yards, including two touchdown throws to runner Alvin Kamara and one to Josh Smith. Jones noted that there is a “monumental difference in terms of big plays, our scoring output, protecting the passer, all those things.”
Jones sees growth in the quarterback’s ability to remain level-headed. That could be key if history repeats itself and the Volunteers have to rally from behind as Alabama took a lead of 62-10 in the last two first halves combined against the Orange & White.
In Dobbs’ first start as a sophomore, Tennessee trailed by 14 with 4:52 to play at South Carolina. In his last start, the Vols were behind 21 points in the latter stages of the second quarter. Both contests resulted in wins for the Big Orange.
"I also thought he grew up a lot last week against Georgia,” Jones said. “He was really holding players accountable in a very, very positive fashion, a very constructive fashion, which was great to see.
“From a leadership standpoint and a mentality standpoint, he's done a good job with that but I thought he took it to another level in the Georgia game."