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Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) and defensive end Derek Barnett (9) cheer after leading the band at the close of their Music City Bowl victory against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Nissan Stadium on Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee won 38-24.
some text Mark Wiedmer

Read more about the 2016 Music City Bowl

NASHVILLE — In one sense, if only one sense, the 2016 University of Tennessee football season ended the way it should have Friday afternoon. It ended with senior quarterback Josh Dobbs on top, even if he was only on top of the Music City Bowl as its most valuable player.

Volniacs will argue, perhaps with some justification, that this season should have ended somewhere far higher up the bowl food chain — at least for Dobbs — than a home-state stage so pedestrian that it can't even earn a New Year's Eve slot, much less a New Year's Day date.

Give me a Sunshine State locale or give me basketball season, a Tennessee fan might reasonably say. And the farther south in Florida the better.

But early injuries and late distractions and somewhat inexplicable losses at South Carolina and Vanderbilt left the Big Orange nowhere to go but close to home for the holidays. So there would be no SEC championship game as SEC East beast, though that had been the preseason prediction for Team 120. Basically, this was the reward for eight wins, four losses and a three-way tie for second in the East.

Not that facing Nebraska in this bowl seemed to bother Dobbs, who ran for a Music City Bowl-record three touchdowns, threw for another and totaled 409 yards of total offense (291 passing yards) to lead the Vols to this 38-24 victory over the Cornhuskers. It was the school's third straight bowl win under fourth-year coach Butch Jones.

"This was my last opportunity to play with my brothers," Dobbs said of his teammates as he stood on the victory stand with Jones, bowl officials and numerous players. "I'm grateful for these guys. I'll always be a Tennessee Vol."

And because his time at UT was spent with Jones in charge, we already know he'll always be a "champion of life," though some more well-balanced folks might reasonably argue why that phrase has taken such a beating the past six weeks.

Whether these college athletes win enough on the field during their playing time in Knoxville, or any other Big State U, shouldn't the true measure of their college experience be what they make of themselves afterward as employees or employers, husbands, fathers, citizens?

Beyond that, shouldn't that also be the most important recruiting pitch of any athletic program? Not so much how their former players perform during their 3.68 seasons in the NFL, NBA or MLB, but how they master their lives after those very brief glory days?

But perhaps that should be another rant for another day.

For this day, it might be best to return to Jones' football quotes concerning Dobbs, to about how "Joshua Dobbs exemplifies consistency."

Especially when the Big Orange needed it most Friday, such as in the final minute of the first half after Nebraska had pulled within 14-7, or inside the game's final 10 minutes, when the Huskers had rallied from a 31-14 hole to close within a touchdown.

On the first of those answering drives, Dobbs took the team 75 yards in nine plays, throwing for 44 of those yards and running for 16 and the touchdown to move the Vols on top 21-7 at intermission.

Then, the Cornhuskers having turned a 31-14 UT smiley face into a 31-24 upset stomach with 10 minutes to play, you saw Dobbs as we've almost always seen him when the Vols need a spark.

On a third-and-3 he picked up 11. On the very next play he hit Josh Malone perfectly in stride for a 59-yard touchdown pass. The lead was again 14 (38-24). The Music City Bowl was over. Unfortunately, so is Dobbs' UT playing career.

"Josh has meant everything to this program," said junior linebacker Cortez McDowell. "Whenever something's gone wrong, he's always been there to bring us back together."

Perhaps never more so than in the days leading up to this Music City Bowl and all the negativity surrounding Jones and the program. Dobbs, after all, was among the first UT athletic department reps to venture to Gatlinburg after the wildfires to bring a bit of comfort and hope to that terrified community.

He was the guy who always showed up early for workouts, who never criticized anyone, who stayed above the fray and kept his criticisms, if there were any, below the radar.

And just as he had all season — the Hail Mary against Georgia, the big throw to Malone against Appalachian State, the all-around brilliance in wins over Virginia Tech and Kentucky — he saved his best for the biggest moments.

As for the one game he'd surely like to take back, the loss at South Carolina, it was revealed by Jones' son this past week that Dobbs — the aerospace engineering major — had pulled two all-nighters that week to finish a class project. If that's true, even his bad performances deserve a standing ovation.

Regardless, it's over. Dobbs will move on to either the NFL, NASA or perhaps both. Jones must find someone capable of replacing him and new UT career sacks leader Derek Barnett — hopefully, our town's late, great Reggie White won't be too upset his record's been passed as he looks down from above — if the coach doesn't expect to be asked to move on to another gig at the close of the 2017 season.

Or maybe the legacy of Dobbs can have a greater impact on Team 121 than anyone can currently imagine.

For as Chattanooga native and rising senior linebacker Colton Jumper observed late Friday before he exited Nissan Stadium: "If everybody did what Josh does, we'd never lose a game."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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