Tennessee will face a different kind of mental challenge next week.
Now in a position to know that winning the SEC East is not attainable, the players and coaching staff will be forced to derive motivation elsewhere for its regular-season finale at Vanderbilt.
Coach Butch Jones and players spoke after a 63-37 win Saturday night over Missouri about going “1-0” next week and trying to build a 10-win season at Tennessee for the first time since 2007.
But no one really bit on the media’s post-game questions about disappointment in not winning the East.
They didn’t discuss the outcome of the LSU loss to Florida or not getting to Atlanta like pundits predicted Tennessee to do.
They just offered up talk of the next game.
“The only thing that matters is being 1-0 this week and controlling what we can control, and that’s winning the football game,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones about the Florida win at LSU that eliminated the Vols from the SEC Championship picture. “We never addressed it one single time, and I think when you look at it, our character was displayed once again with our players. But again, everything is about our team and working to be 1-0, and that’s all that matters.”
What was hard to derive in that media setting was if the Tennessee players and Jones believed what they were saying about moving forward and not lamenting the fact that LSU couldn’t score from the 1 against Florida in the final seconds to open the door for Tennessee to win the SEC East.
What was discernible Saturday was that, whether Tennessee (8-3, 4-3 SEC) learned of the SEC East news during the game or after, they had enough drive to put away upset-minded Missouri.
Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs willed that to happen, sparking a 42-point, second-half outburst. And when the Vols called a timeout with 2 minutes, 24 seconds remaining against the Tigers (3-8, 1-6), Dobbs checked out to a tasteful and voluminous ovation from a fan base still reeling from the season’s detour.
Dobbs set a career high in rushing yards (190 yards on 10 carries) and ran for two scores. He set a career mark for longest TD run with 70, which put Tennessee ahead 42-30 at the 13:20 mark in the fourth. He threw three touchdown passes—two to Jauan Jennings – and also completed 15 of 22 passes for 223 yards.
He became the fourth SEC quarterback to reach 50 career touchdown passes and 25 rushing touchdowns. Dobbs, who has 50 career pass TDs and 29 career rushing TDs, joined Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and Dak Prescott as SEC quarterbacks in that fraternity.
“I’m just like, man, I’m glad he’s on our team,” said Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett. “The offense bailed us out a lot and Dobbs, I mean y’all saw the game, he’s done some crazy things out there.”
Yes, Josh Dobbs did enough on the field Saturday to make you almost forget how bad the Tennessee defense has played the last two weeks.
The Vols have surrendered 1,375 total yards combined the last two weeks to Kentucky and Missouri, respectively. Missouri had backs go for 225 yards and 163 yards Saturday night.
Missouri had 41 first downs, and its 740 total yards were the most any opponent has scored against Tennessee.
The few defensive positives? Derek Barnett registered another sack Saturday, leaving him just one behind Reggie White for the school’s all-time leader (32). Freshman defensive back Nigel Warrior made his first start in what could be a memorable collegiate career.
Micah Abernathy picked off a pass and had a team-high 12 tackles. As did Jonathan Kongbo, who returned his interception 59 yards for a score for the game’s final points with 4:31 to go.
Those bright spots did little, however, to outweigh 740 yards allowed, said defensive back Rashaan Gaulden.
"Yeah it’s very frustrating, I won’t lie. I looked at the stats sheet and I saw 740 total yards, you can’t really get too hot about that, because that’s a lot of yards,” he said. “All we can do is focus on the win, but at the same time, we need to fix the problem.”
The problem just may not be fixable until bowl practice time, when perhaps more defensive players can return from the injured list.
Otherwise, it’s going to be Dobbs, Dobbs and more Dobbs from here on out.
“He has been effective all year,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said of Dobbs. “He’s a great player, runs really well. He was throwing the deep ball well tonight early on. Then they went to the run game, talented kid. The two tailbacks, (Alvin) Kamara (who rushed for 55 yards) I am really impressed with and then (John) Kelly (who rushed for 101 yards); that has really opened up the run game the past few weeks.
“They have a good thing going on.”
It just won’t be going on in Atlanta in two weeks, and new motivation must arise.