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Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) eludes Alabama's Jonathan Allen (93) as he heads downfield on Oct. 25, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in SEC action.

KNOXVILLE - Josh Dobbs, where have you been all year?

More to the point, Tennessee coach Butch Jones, why have you kept Dobbs hidden all season?

There wasn't much way the Volunteers were going to defeat Alabama for the first time in eight years Saturday night after falling behind 27-0. Not even the sophomore Dobbs playing a full game at quarterback rather than all but the first two possessions that were wasted on Nate Peterman likely would have stopped the No. 4 Crimson Tide from winning 34-20.

But Dobbs also did far more than stop the bleeding against Bama. He made the Crimson Tide sweat, a nervous habit that should inflict every future UT foe going forward. Dobbs can run and he can pass, and befitting an aeronautical engineering major, he appears to have the necessary brainpower to discern when each is needed.

"I thought Josh Dobbs provided a spark for us," Jones said afterward in perhaps the understatement of the season. "He adds another element in terms of running the ball. I thought Josh used great poise out there."

Duh.

You just don't take on the SEC's top overall defense -- a defense surrendering only 262 yards a game -- and finish with 192 yards passing and 75 running (that's 267 yards by Dobbs alone) without providing a spark and providing great poise.

Or as Dobbs said, "I feel like I played well, but there's always room for improvement."

This isn't to say that Dobbs pushed all the right buttons against the Tide.

He fumbled early, a turnover that led directly to another Bama touchdown. Whether from his own inexperience or his teammates' ineptness, there were a handful of busted plays, though none became disastrous past that early fumble.

Yet those were the vast exceptions. Most of the time, especially when given time by a surprisingly stout UT offensive line, Dobbs was dangerous, determined and deceptive, traits that should serve both him and the Vols well going forward.

Never was this more evident than with 7:50 to play in the third quarter, third-and-8 at the Bama 29. Forced from the pocket, Dobbs' pump fake of Tide linebacker Trey DePriest was arguably the feel-good play of the night. Not only did the Alpharetta, Ga., product pick up 15 yards and a first down, but that gain soon led to a Dobbs touchdown pass to Von Pearson to slice the Tide's advantage to 27-17 midway through the third quarter.

Suddenly, "Rocky Top" rang throughout Neyland Stadium as it had not rung against Bama since coach Nick Saban arrived in 2007 to make the Big Orange Nation miserable from that point forward. Suddenly, there was real reason to believe not only that a miracle was possible in this game, but in the remaining four SEC games to be played, beginning this Saturday night at South Carolina.

And as for those rumors that Dobbs is a terrible practice player, so what? Or Third and What? Or whatever pithy little saying Jones likes to say to motivate his young team. Anyone who witnessed the Orange and White Game last spring -- when Dobbs certainly looked like the best QB on the field -- knew this guy could play.

Does that mean he absolutely, positively deserved to start over senior Justin Worley? Absolutely not. But it does mean, especially in light of Worley's relative struggles behind UT's inexperienced offensive line, that Dobbs should have been getting at least a few meaningful minutes before he was forced to get all the minutes due to Worley's shoulder injury.

Had he had more experience, he might not have rushed a throw to Marquez North with just under 10 minutes to play, a pass that, if completed, would have pulled the Vols within 10 points of the Tide instead of forcing UT to kick a field goal that closed the gap to 34-20.

Had Dobbs entered the weekend with more experience, Jones might have started him instead of watching Peterman waste two possessions, the Tide answering with touchdowns on both to lead 14-0.

Of course, had Dobbs entered the weekend with more experience, Alabama might also have been more prepared for his diversity, its defense more prepared for his fleet feet and nimble mind.

That dynamic we'll never know. But what we've all known all season is that UT's inexperienced and often ineffective offensive line desperately needed a mobile quarterback capable of slowing enemy pass rushes.

Dobbs proved yet again against the Tide that he's the only quarterback on the roster capable of providing that threat. If Jones wasn't certain of that before Saturday night, he surely is now.

Or is he?

"We'll continue to rep Nate this week," Jones said afterward, apparently certain that Worley's shoulder won't be ready for the Gamecocks. "We'll continue to compete this week. Whoever has a great week of practice (will start)."

Enough of Practice. Against the best defense in the league, Peterman was sacked once in two possessions and directed the offense to no points. Against the best defense in the league for the last three-and-a-half quarters, Dobbs was also sacked once but directed the offense to 20 points.

That's the spark this offense has lacked all season. That's the spark only Dobbs is likely to provide going forward.

Said linebacker Curt Maggitt of Dobbs: "He's going to help us a lot in the future."

He will. But only if Jones is smart enough to make Dobbs the starter from this point forward.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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