It’s not on our countdown, but one of the best moments for Tennessee football in a decade full of lesser options came in early 2016: Peyton Manning beat Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, won his second Super Bowl, and rode off into the sunset.
Manning had been Tennessee’s greatest hero for two decades. Not only did he rewrite SEC and NFL record books, he played 18 seasons at the game’s highest level. Thirteen of Tennessee’s NFL Draft picks taken during Manning’s NFL career made the Pro Bowl: Al Wilson, Jamal Lewis, Shaun Ellis, Chad Clifton, Travis Henry, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Jason Witten, Scott Wells, Dustin Colquitt, Jerod Mayo, Eric Berry, and Cordarrelle Patterson. Arian Foster, a fantasy football god, makes 14.
Jamal won a Super Bowl in 2000 and was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2003 (the same year Manning and Steve McNair split the MVP). Witten made 11 Pro Bowls; only 15 players (including Manning) have ever made more. Berry made five, and would’ve made more if healthy.
But no one ever came close to Manning, in accolades and in popularity among Vol fans. Some of it was the nature of playing quarterback, and the absence of any other NFL starter from Tennessee after him. Some of it was simply Manning.
By the time he retired, the Vols had been in the wilderness for seven years. No offense to Nathan Peterman – we’ll get to him in a minute, actually – but no Vol quarterback had taken meaningful snaps as a starter in the NFL since Peyton. Tee Martin, Erik Ainge, and Jonathan Crompton were all fifth round picks. Tyler Bray, once thought to have the brightest NFL future of any Vol QB since Manning, ultimately went undrafted (but has found stability and success as a backup with the Chiefs and Bears the last seven years).
For a Vol quarterback seeking this kind of long-term legacy, the shoes to fill are large, and have been largely empty since Manning. And into all that stepped a sophomore quarterback we weren’t prepared to expect much of.
#7: Josh Dobbs Ignites
Speaking of unfair expectations, Josh Dobbs’ first collegiate action came against Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn in 2013. Those three teams finished the year ranked seventh, fifth, and second. Dobbs had some excitement around him because he was clearly a different athlete than Justin Worley, who was knocked out of the Alabama game immediately following a surge of optimism against Georgia and South Carolina. And the freshman Dobbs did his best against those odds. He was unable to lead a touchdown drive against Missouri, and the points Tennessee did score against Auburn (23) were quickly overwhelmed by the Tigers’ (55).
And then came one of the first crossroad games for Butch Jones: James Franklin’s final Vanderbilt team, with the Vols at 4-6 and still alive for bowl eligibility. These Commodores would finish the season ranked, and Franklin got the job in Happy Valley. Vanderbilt earned its second win over Tennessee since 1982 the year before in Derek Dooley’s last game; that kind of loss tends not to sting as much from our perspective. But this contest carried real weight for both sides.
Dobbs threw an interception on his first pass attempt, putting the Vols in a 7-0 hole. The Vols went three-and-out on their next two drives, wasting great field position after their own interception. Marquez North was out with an injury. And Tennessee really stayed away from the pass after that.
Dobbs’ final stat line in this game is 11-of-19 (57.9%) for 53 yards (2.8 yards per attempt) with two interceptions. But it was actually even worse than that: Vanderbilt’s infamous 92-yard drive to take the lead with 16 seconds left gave the Vols a few heaves downfield. Dobbs completed two passes against prevent coverage for 14 and 23 yards in those last 16 seconds, then was incomplete on the final play of the game. So before the final drive, Dobbs was 9-of-16 (56.3%) for 16 yards. I think you can handle the YPA math on that.
Something we found ourselves saying some leading up to the 2016 season about Dobbs’ ceiling – do they trust him enough to throw it downfield enough to win? – was first a topic of conversation about his floor. When you have that kind of performance in a crucial game against any Vanderbilt team, you find your way to an assumption from the fan base: this guy isn’t the answer.
Justin Worley was back for his senior season, Riley Ferguson transferred after spring practice, and Tennessee did not sign a quarterback in its (otherwise massively successful) 2014 class. Four-stars Quinten Dormady and Sheriron Jones would come in the next year, setting the stage for competition after Worley left.
I probably led the league in word count in defending Justin Worley in the first half of the 2014 season, so no need to revisit all that. But kudos to that kid for standing back there behind the greenest of offensive lines, which eventually led to him getting knocked out for the season for the second year in a row.
By that point, the Vols had missed a critical opportunity for the second time under Butch Jones: first Vanderbilt to stay bowl eligible in 2013, then perhaps the Gators at their lowest point since we started playing them every year in 2014. Tennessee imploded in the red zone, lost 10-9, and a lot of momentum Jones had built through recruiting fell by the wayside. After a win over Chattanooga, back-to-back top five opponents from Ole Miss and Alabama compounded the problem.
Against the Tide, Nathan Peterman got the start. With a fist-pumping Lane Kiffin on the sideline, Alabama scored a touchdown on its first snap and raced to an unbelievable 27-0 lead just 18 minutes into the game. In the stadium and probably elsewhere, you felt like they might go for 100 points and 1,000 yards.
Peterman gave way to Dobbs, whose first three drives ended in two punts and a fumble. And to be sure, Bama’s defense probably relaxed up 27-0. But Dobbs worked a 10-play, 84-yard drive to get the Vols on the board, then Aaron Medley knocked home three to make it 27-10 at the break.
And then, from the archives at Rocky Top Talk:
In between the Vol defense stopped the Tide on its opening drive of the third quarter, setting up this from Dobbs: 3rd and 7 complete to Marquez North for 22, 3rd and 2 to Ethan Wolf for 10, 3rd and 8 on his own with a brilliant 15 yard pump fake scramble, then another 3rd and goal at the 9 and another touchdown as Von Pearson hit the brakes and they flew right by.
Tennessee didn’t complete the comeback, falling 34-20 after cutting Bama’s lead to 27-17 at that point. But Dobbs erased the memories from Vanderbilt and put possibility on the table. You only had to wait a week to cash it in.
I’ve called this Tennessee’s most rewatchable game of the decade a number of times. Unlike the options from 2016 that carry mixed amounts of frustration for what that season didn’t become, this game – as an incredible team performance, insane comeback, and the genesis of Josh Dobbs as the Tennessee quarterback of the decade – is pure joy. Honestly, Tennessee’s wild comeback against Indiana in the Gator Bowl is probably underrated because this one happened just five years earlier. The after-midnight-but-hey-it’s-daylight-savings! postgame is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.
In his next-to-last start in 2013 against Vanderbilt, Dobbs was 9-of-16 for 16 yards and two interceptions before facing the prevent defense, plus 11 carries for 23 yards.
In his first start in 2014 at South Carolina, Dobbs was 23 of 40, 301 yards (7.5 YPA), 2 TD, 1 INT. Plus 24 carries, 166 yards, 3 TD on the ground.
We found our quarterback.
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