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VOL. 40 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 14, 2016

As always, Vols’ season comes down to Bama

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Sophomore wide receiver Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro had a season-high five catches for 68 yards and threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Joshua Dobbs in Saturday’s loss at Texas A&M.

-- Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

Halfway through a heart-stopping season, how strong is the pulse for the Cardiac Vols? Once-beaten and physically battered, what does Tennessee have left in the tank as it faces top-ranked Alabama and the lesser challenges that lie ahead?

Questions, questions. I have a guess – educated or otherwise: I think these Vols are built to last. One way or another, they will find their way to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game against an opponent yet to be determined.

The double-overtime loss at Texas A&M and the looming challenge of old rival Alabama have increased the degree of difficulty. But if we have learned nothing else about the makeup of this team over the last month and a half, it is that the Vols are resilient.

It’s not always pretty. Come to think of it, it’s almost never really pretty until they’re a couple of touchdowns behind. That’s when UT plays its best football.

Granted, the defeat at Texas A&M was hard to accept, mainly because it appeared to be just the latest in a run of ridiculous comeback victories. After all those offensive pyrotechnics, particularly in the second half, who would have believed the Vols would be limited to a paltry three points in two overtime periods?

In retrospect, it was somehow appropriate that the game ended with a UT turnover – the seventh of the game.

Stat worth noting: In 1990, UT set a school record by losing only three fumbles all season. The Vols equaled that with three lost fumbles by the first series of the second half against A&M – all in one game.

Bottom line: These Vols are much too casual in terms of holding onto the football. Early in the season, UT got away with dropping the ball. The Vols recovered 10 of their first 11 fumbles. Stuff like that evens out over the course of the season. At Texas A&M, it was the difference between victory and defeat.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how UT handles this wave of adversity. The 2016 season is becoming a war of attrition in terms of injuries. The hits just keep right on coming. It is a testament to Butch Jones’ recruiting that the Vols are able to put a quality team on the field in the face of so many injuries to key players, especially on defense.

UT fans are beginning to accept the idea that this team is going to start slow. Nobody knows why. Jones says he has studied things, held meetings and alerted practice in an effort to get his team’s internal alarm clock to go off on schedule – to no avail.

So here comes Alabama. This is not a game for the faint of heart.

The Crimson Tide’s reputation precedes it. This is the last step in a killer four-game stretch for UT – and by far the toughest.

To a generation of Vols fans, Florida is viewed as a bigger rival. Yes, the Gators are a divisional foe and had won 11 in a row before UT broke the streak last month.

In the ’90s, Steve Spurrier made life miserable for the Vols when he was Florida’s coach.

Historically, though, nobody comes close to Alabama as UT’s biggest rival.

The annual mid-October matchup stands on its own.

And Jones knows it.

He understands his worth as Vols coach ultimately will be determined by his success against Florida and Alabama – not necessarily in that order.

You know the situation: Alabama has won nine straight against the Vols, and many of those games were total mismatches. Phillip Fulmer’s final UT team in 2008 was beaten 29-9 in a game that saw Alabama fans take over Neyland Stadium.

By game’s end, it was clear to most observers that the Fulmer era was nearing an end. He lasted one more game – an ugly 27-6 defeat at South Carolina – before his firing was announced, effective at the end of the season.

One of the highlights of Lane Kiffin’s one-year drive-by at UT was a tough 12-10 loss at Alabama, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time.

The Vols had a chance to win on the last play but massive defensive lineman Terrence Cody blocked Daniel Lincoln’s 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired.

It was Cody’s second block of a kick in the fourth quarter.

Then came the utter futility of the Derek Dooley reign of error. Dooley’s three UT teams lost to the Tide by precisely 31 points in each game – 41-10, 37-6 and 44-13. That’s not the kind of consistency you want out of a coach, especially against your biggest rival.

Alabama manhandled the Vols in Jones’ first two seasons, but UT closed the gap in 2015.

Jalen Hurd’s 12-yard touchdown run gave the Vols the lead with 5:49 remaining but the Tide came back to win 19-14.

With Josh Dobbs at quarterback, the Vols have a shot. With Dobbs in the game, UT has been outscored just 50-44 in the previous three meetings with the Tide.

As best I can tell, the only SEC quarterback with a better plus/minus against Alabama is Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, who owns an 86-85 advantage over the Tide in his two matchups.

As for Dobbs, here’s how it broke down: As a freshman in 2013, Dobbs took his first college snap with the Vols down 35-0. UT ultimately lost 45-10. In 2014, Alabama led 13-0 when Dobbs replaced starter Nathan Peterman late in the first quarter.

UT lost that one 34-20. Last year, Dobbs threw for 171 yards and a touchdown in a five-point loss.

There’s a cause/effect here. As good as Alabama’s defenses have been under Nick Saban, the Tide sometimes has struggled against mobile quarterbacks who can also throw. Dobbs certainly qualifies.

For the Vols, this is a midseason gut-check.

They’ve been good at times, lucky at times and resilient all the time.

Historically, Alabama is their measuring stick. This season is no different.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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