Tennessee has been mediocre (a euphemism for wildly disappointing) for the past several years, with 2007 being the last time the Volunteers made an appearance in the SEC Championship Game. However, head coach Butch Jones will enter the season without any doubts as to who will be behind center. Not all SEC coaches will have that luxury.
Soon-to-be junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs played in just six games in 2014, but he managed 1206 yards along with nine touchdowns through the air while tallying 469 yards and eight scores on the ground. If we do a simple extrapolation of these numbers, we see that Dobbs would have finished the season with more than 2600 passing yards and just over 1000 rushing yards.
While we do not have a full season's worth of games to evaluate Dobbs, his experience in those six games—along with the action he saw in five games in 2013—will be invaluable as he enters his first season as the Vols' starter. Expectations are rising on Rocky Top, and for good reason. Butch Jones has recruited like a champ, and the Volunteers finished the 2014 season above .500, which includes the shellacking of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Dobbs has experience. His program is moving in the right direction. This should be fun to watch.
The imminent resurgence of Volunteer football stands out as one of the main reasons Dobbs' Heisman candidacy is a legitimate premise. Dobbs is leading an orange-clad crusade, as he can be the engine behind the Vols' return to the national spotlight. There is something to be said for this variable in terms of winning the most coveted individual award in college football.
Obviously Cam Newton's and Jameis Winston's Heismans were pit stops on the way to the natty, but Robert Griffin III took a 7-6 Baylor team (2010) and won the Heisman the following season. The 2011 Baylor Bears were not perfect, nor were they even national title contenders given their three-loss regular season. However, Griffin was downright magical that season, and he did it in the process of improving his program as a whole. Incidentally, Texas A&M went 7-6 in 2011, but they improved dramatically the following year behind Johnny Manziel's season for the ages. That is not to say the 2012 Aggies were going to win it all, but Manziel revitalized a program—something that cannot be underestimated when considering the field of Heisman candidates.
Dobbs has the ability and the opportunity to be a similar sort of catalyst to his program. He has the chance to be the face of Tennessee's revitalization, along with Butch Jones of course.
A major key to Dobbs' Heisman chances is that he plays quarterback. It is starting to feel as if "Heisman" spelled backwards is "quarterback." It is a quarterback-centric award, and Dobbs figures to be one of the finest gunslingers in the nation this season, let alone in the SEC (which is not exactly replete with household name QBs at the moment). Another major reason Dobbs is a realistic candidate: he is true dual threat. Pocket passers simply will not win an award that is based on the marriage of flash and consistency. Only having the latter is not enough. Cam Newton defied physics. Johnny Manziel made your heart skip a beat when he dropped back to pass.
Dobbs may not have Newton's size—and he may not frantically tiptoe around like Manziel—but he has wheels and is capable of tucking it and taking off when need be. His ability to call his own number in short yardage situations near the goal line means he should score a load of rushing TDs in 2015. Rushing totals count for something in the Heisman conversation (Collin Klein and Jordan Lynch, looking at you guys).
Dobbs is unflappable in the pocket and can extend plays, often shedding would-be tacklers with relative ease and deceptive strength. As a passer, his ball placement, touch, decision-making and ability to read defenses are clearly there. He is also adept at throwing on the run, which means his rollouts can turn into some spectacular plays. Above all, though, the guy is just cool and composed. He effortlessly makes people miss in the open field, and he has no problem maneuvering in the pocket amidst a menacing pass rush. His game just looks so natural. In just a handful of games last season, Dobbs showcased a multitude of skills, including the "excitement factor" necessary to win a Heisman.
Dobbs' chances of hoisting the Heisman Trophy should be aided by outstanding running back Jalen Hurd, who totaled nearly 900 rushing yards as a freshman in 2014. Hurd will make defenses account for the ground game, and if opponents are not prudent and decide to stack the box, Dobbs will burn them with his arm. With Hurd in the backfield, along with a bevy of quality receivers in Marquez North, Von Pearson and Pig Howard, Dobbs will have weapons on weapons on weapons this year.
Plus, his offensive line can only improve. He was incredibly productive with a lackluster offensive line unit last season, so his upside looks limitless so long as the big boys up front can protect him better.
If you are a believer in the "Heisman Moment," Dobbs will have a chance for one when the Vols travel to Tuscaloosa on October 24. Now, this is based on the assumption that Tennessee will still be relevant on a national level by this time, and it also implies that Dobbs will have been playing at a Heisman-worthy level up to this point in the season (two very realistic assumptions, mind you). A strong showing against Oklahoma early in the season would get the Dobbs hype train rolling, but the quarterback could be catapulted into full-fledged Heisman discussions if he picks apart the Tide in their own backyard.
Tennessee's last five games do not appear to be the most daunting tests (at Kentucky, vs. South Carolina, vs. North Texas, at Missouri, vs. Vanderbilt). Let's just say Dobbs should have a field day during this final stretch of the season, a time when he can solidify his position as a Heisman contender while other candidates inevitably falter.
This Tennessee team appears to have the coaching, talent, depth, experience and yes, quarterback play, to contend in the SEC East this season. There is a sense of hope brewing among the faithful on Rocky Top, as rediscovered success and national relevance appear to be on the horizon.
The good folks in Knoxville already know what No. 11 is capable of. Now, the rest of America is about to find out.