KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The miraculous nature of Tennessee’s 34-31 win at Georgia has carried over to the public mainstream, as the Vols’ orange jerseys and caps are sprouting up more commonly, and football talk is dominating water-cooler breaks.
It’s the sort of thing that happens during a championship season, when a team starts to appear destined for bigger things.
It’s one thing for fans to embrace that mindset, but it would be quite dangerous for the team to consider itself one of destiny.
Tennessee is ranked No. 9 at 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the SEC, but having had to come from behind in four games, it’s quite obvious the Vols just as easily could be 2-3 at this juncture.
Here are five parting shots from Tennessee’s Hail Mary between the Hedges win over the Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2):
1) The Josh Dobbs difference
Dobbs is the single biggest reason Tennessee remains in championship contention, his dual-threat abilities separating him from other quarterbacks that must rely heavily on other skill position players.
Dobbs has had to overcome spotty offensive line play, receivers dropping passes and his running backs fumbling and failing to break off big runs.
The Heisman Trophy presentation is a long ways off, but if Tennessee keeps winning, Dobbs could earn himself an invitation to New York for the ceremony.
2) Room for improvement
The flip side of Tennessee’s early struggles is that the Vols have plenty of room for improvement, particularly on offense. The line has grown healthier and has played better in each outing, if only incrementally.
Tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara must overcome fumbling issues and increase production. Hurd has 101 carries but his longest run is only 28 yards, and he’s averaging 4 yards per carry. Kamara has been slightly more explosive — a 35-yard run to his credit and a 4.3 average per carry. But Kamara also has three fumbles to Hurd’s two.
Jones said Saturday that Hurd had an undisclosed lower body injury, so perhaps sophomore John Kelly will get an opportunity to show if he can provide a spark.
3) Slow starts
It’s not the elephant in the room — it’s the room the elephant is in.
Tennessee has been outscored 41-10 in the first quarter of games this season, and it has been unable to reverse the trend even after identifying it following the Virginia Tech game.
Remember when the Hokies outgained the Vols 204-28 in the first quarter of the Battle at Bristol, taking a 14-0 lead?
Ah, and speaking of the Battle at Bristol, it was the first time Tennessee showed real signs of life, reeling off 31 straight points to beat a Virginia Tech team that has since won its last two games by a combined score of 103-17 (over Boston College and East Carolina) and is now ranked No. 25.
It takes a certain level of mental toughness to be able to overcome double-digit leads in four games, particularly with such leaders as Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. sidelined by injuries.
5) Health check
Keeping Dobbs healthy is the most important thing Tennessee can do to protect its championship hopes, but the defense also can ill-afford more bumps and bruises.
Colton Jumper has performed admirably the past two games, leading the team in tackles in both outings with Kirkland sidelined by a high ankle sprain.
Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) and Sutton (fractured ankle) could be out for extended amounts of time, and while their backups have performed admirably, there has been a drop-off.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s unit is already stretched dangerously thin in the linebacking corps and secondary, so getting through the Texas A&M and Alabama games without losing any more players in those units is essential.