Butch Jones’ tears told the tale Saturday. Tennessee is living way too dangerously, scaring the ever-loving hell out of its poor coach and fan base just about every week, but these Volunteers sure seem to have something special in them when it matters.
After a jaw-dropping, last-second, 34-31 comeback win at No. 25 Georgia, Jones emoted like a man who was equal parts proud and relieved. Again. Such is life for No. 11 Tennessee so far this fall: No, no, no, no, yesssssssss!
Josh Dobbs’ 43-yard Hail Mary touchdown toss to Jauan Jennings as time expired against the Bulldogs would’ve been even more stunning had it not been just the latest escape for the Vols and their increasingly clutch quarterback.
Tennessee is 5-0 overall, 2-0 in the SEC, and, after roaring back to beat fellow East Division contenders Florida and Georgia the last two weeks, is firmly in the driver’s seat on the road to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Unscathed, sure, but hardly unscared.
The Volunteers trailed Appalachian State 13-3, Virginia Tech 14-0, Florida 21-0 and Georgia 17-0. They remain undefeated, though, because they closed out those four games by outscoring the Mountaineers, Hokies, Gators and Bulldogs by a combined 134-31.
In each case, Dobbs led the charge. From the point of his team’s largest deficit forward in those four games, Dobbs completed 61 percent of his passes for 688 yards, rushed for 215 yards, produced 15 total touchdowns and threw just 4 interceptions.
He’s still far from perfect, and he probably should stop waiting so long to get going, but the way Dobbs puts the team on his back when its back is against the wall is exactly what Tennessee needs from the senior quarterback. Likewise, star defensive end Derek Barnett has earned his hype in the heat of these last two battles.
He recorded 5½ tackles for loss, including 4 sacks, against Florida and Georgia. His forced fumble in the end zone with 2:56 to go Saturday — which teammate Corey Vereen pounced on for the Vols’ first lead of the game — looked like the winning play. But Tennessee doesn’t do things the easy way.
No, it had to let Jacob Eason heave a 47-yard, go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left, just to make this one a little more interesting. So that Dobbs could launch one last gasp and Jennings could rise above a crowd and Tennessee could snatch its own imperfect perfection from the sky. And so Butch Jones could cry.
He knows his star quarterback and defensive end need more help. They need running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd not to cough up fumbles that cost them points in the first half Saturday — Hurd’s coming on a casual effort on his way into the end zone. They need the rest of the (albeit injury-depleted) defense to tackle running backs and stop leaving receivers running all alone.
The Volunteers cannot keep living this way, right on the edge of disaster. Or maybe they can. And maybe that’s what we’ll remember about these guys when it’s all said and done, that they were rarely pretty but never out of it. So far, that has been the case.
And what a turn of events.
Remember last season, when Tennessee blew two-touchdown leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, and a late lead against Alabama? Suddenly, the Vols have flipped the script. It might not be good for the mental health of their coach or their fans, but it beats the heck out of the 2015 alternative.