KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Two years ago, on a cold Saturday in Columbia, the trajectory of Tennessee’s then-teetering program changed.
In serious danger of missing a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season, the Volunteers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the final 110 seconds against the South Carolina Gamecocks, ultimately winning a 45-42 thriller in overtime.
The comeback was engineered by a bruising sophomore quarterback making his first-career start for Tennessee.
“I don’t really look back at it much,” now-senior quarterback Josh Dobbs said.
“But it was definitely a big win for us.”
Talk about an understatement.
Against the Gamecocks, Dobbs accounted for 476 total yards and 5 touchdowns, while then-freshman tailback Jalen Hurd rushed for a season-high 125 yards. Derek Barnett (3 sacks), Jason Croom (tying touchdown) and Aaron Medley (game-winning field goal) all contributed with key plays, too.
The scintillating victory — and first SEC win of the season for UT — propelled the Volunteers the rest of the year, as they won three of their final four games with Dobbs orchestrating the offense — including a 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
“The (South Carolina) win definitely led us down the right track,” Dobbs said.
“We came into that season with the goal to make it to a bowl game and continue growing the program from there. … It was definitely a steppingstone in the right direction for us, and we’ve continued to grow since then.”
The comeback kickstarted Dobbs’ career, as the Peach State native has started every game since for the Vols — going 18-7.
“The mark of a great quarterback is the ability to lead your team from behind on the road to a fourth-quarter victory. (Dobbs) made a lot of throws that night. That was part of the evolution of him being the quarterback here at Tennessee,” coach Butch Jones said.
“He gained a lot of confidence and gained the confidence from his peers and teammates. He’s just been very consistent from there moving forward.”
In a vacuum, Tennessee’s 7-6 season in 2014 wasn’t something to write home about. But the strong finish — starting with the victory over South Carolina on a hiemal Halloween weekend — served as the catalyst for the Volunteers rebuild under Jones.
It launched the careers of Dobbs, Hurd and Barnett — now the core nucleus of a championship contender. The momentum propelled Tennessee to a Top 5 recruiting class and a 9-win season in 2015.
This summer, the Volunteers entered the season ranked among the nation’s elite, officially crowning Tennessee “back” and nationally relevant once again.
Losses against Texas A&M and Alabama likely ruined playoff hopes this season, but a win over South Carolina on Saturday keeps Tennessee’s SEC East aspirations alive.
“When we came here, we were a part of a long of homecoming games. It is what it is. That’s just the facts. That is the truth,” Jones said.
“Our players have done a good job (rebuilding the program), and now the more your win, the more that’s at stake. You have to continue to grow and elevate your play and elevate your football team.”
The Volunteers are looking for their first 10-win season since 2007, and as expectations have risen, Jones’ team faces a role reversal compared to just two years ago in Columbia.
“We’re in a position where we haven’t been where everybody circles the (Tennessee) game now. They’re going to judge their programs how well they play against Tennessee,” Jones said.
“There’s a responsibility that comes along with that. … We’re going to get everyone’s ‘A’ game. When you build your program, the next step is learning how to win and handle success.”