For Better or Worse, Dobbs Defines Jones Era

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs will be one of 11 senior scholarship players honored at Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home finale against Missouri at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs put some distance between himself and Kentucky Wildcat defenders during Saturday’s win in Knoxville. Dobbs won the starting job halfway through his freshman season, Butch Jones’ first at Tennessee.

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/

Their legacies as Vols largely will be defined against Missouri and at Vanderbilt in their last games of the 2016 season – and by what happens Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge.

The Vols (7-3, 3-3 SEC) need Florida (7-2, 5-2) to lose at LSU (6-3, 4-2) and must win out in order to win the East Division for a spot in the SEC Championship game against Alabama.

If the Vols don’t win the East, they will fall short of their primary goal for 2016. This season was East Division or Bust. And if they don’t win the East this year, when will they have a better chance?

Tennessee opened as a 14-point favorite to beat Missouri (3-7, 1-5) and should be favored the next Saturday at Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5). Missouri beat visiting Vanderbilt 26-17 last Saturday.

UT coach Butch Jones was asked this week if he is comfortable with the legacy Team 120 leaves.

“I’m proud of this football team and everything they’ve accomplished,” Jones said. “We’ve played the most difficult, No. 1 schedule in the country. We’re 7-3 and we’re playing meaningful games in November, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Tennessee’s strength of schedule is ranked No. 20 in one poll, less difficult in others. ESPN has the Vols at No. 41.

“You look at defensively, I believe we have five players out for the year. We’ve had eight different starting combinations in the secondary. It’s pretty hard to be consistent when you have that, and then you look at the number of players who have missed games.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a season like this in football, but you look at what we’ve accomplished and I’m proud of our guys.”

Dobbs, who played at Alpharetta (Georgia) High School, has been the starter since midway through his freshman year, Jones’ first season as Tennessee’s coach. He’s played a major role in Jones’ rebuild of a program stagnant in Phillip Fulmer’s later years, briefly fueled in Lane Kiffin’s only season (2009), and beaten down in Derek Dooley’s three years (2010-12).

Jones came from Cincinnati for big-time football at Tennessee, which hasn’t played in the SEC Championship game since 2007 and hasn’t won it since 1998.

Dobbs has played as big a role as any Vol in the program’s progression under Jones: from 5-7 in 2013 to 7-6 the next year and 9-4 in 2014 and to this season.

“I think (Dobbs) defines what a student-athlete is all about,” Jones pointed out. “You look at what he’s meant to this football program not only on the field, but off the field, and it starts with character. He’s a face in this community. He’s giving of his time.

“You look at the curriculum that he’s involved in, he’s a very good student, and what he’s meant to our football program as the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee.”

Dobbs’ place in UT quarterback lore hinges on the rest of the season. He won’t reach Peyton Manning or Tee Martin status because he won’t win as many games as Manning or an NCAA championship like Martin did in 1998.

Dobbs had one of his worst games as a Vol in a 24-21 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 29, also one of the worst losses in Jones’ tenure at UT.

That loss caused the Vols to lose control of their SEC East destiny.

Since then, Dobbs and the Vols have regrouped with victories over Tennessee Tech (55-0) two weeks ago and Kentucky (49-36) last Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Yet Tennessee needs to finish strong for the senior class’ legacy.

“We talked about when we recruited them about getting Tennessee football back, and it’s come a long way,” Jones recalled.

“Are we there yet? Have we arrived? Nope. But these individuals have really been the architects to it, and they’ve been through a lot.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.