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Missouri at Tennessee: Dobbs changes Vols' equation, but the line can be beaten

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Joshua Dobbs (6'3, 216, So.) (61-for-99, 790 yards, 7 TD, 2 INT, 2 sacks, 7.6 yards/attempt; 51 carries, 308 yards, 6.0 yards/carry, 4 TD)
Nathan Peterman (6'2, 220, So.) (10-for-20, 49 yards, 2 sacks, 2.1 yards/attempt; 7 carries, 35 yards, 5.0 yards/carry, 1 TD)

It's only been three games, and the last two were against defenses ranked 78th (Kentucky) and 121st (South Carolina) in Def. F/+. Still, since Joshua Dobbs took his redshirt off against Alabama after starter Justin Worley got hurt and backup Nathan Peterman bombed a short audition, Tennessee's offense changed. It may not have become elite, but it became far more than it was. Two weeks after averaging 4.8 yards per play against Chattanooga, the Vols averaged 4.9 against Alabama. And two months after averaging 4.1 yards per play against Oklahoma (better, but still only 41st), they were averaging 6.8 and 6.4 against SC and Kentucky, respectively. They had averaged 13.5 points per game against power-conference opponents, and now they're averaging 38.3 in their last three.

Quite simply, Dobbs' mobility has been a game-changer. His passing has been good, too, but adding an extra run threat to the mix -- something Worley and Peterman just can't do -- has given the Vols a numbers advantage they didn't have. The run game still isn't amazing, but it's better. After failing to top 3.7 yards per carry in any game this year, the Vols have averaged 4.2, 6.3, and 4.2 over the last three games.

If the run can provide any distraction whatsoever, the Tennessee passing game can be pretty efficient. It isn't as good as the recruiting rankings would suggest -- former blue-chippers Marquez North and Josh Malone have combined to average just 5.6 yards per target (and yes, they're still very young) -- but with balance comes effectiveness for the Vols. And before Dobbs, there was no balance.

Jalen Hurd (6'3, 227, Fr.) (158 carries, 716 yards, 3 TD; 32 targets, 27 catches, 177 yards, 6.6 yards/target, 2 TD)
Derrell Scott (5'11, 194, Fr.) (11 carries, 40 yards)
Marlin Lane (5'11, 209, Sr.) (60 carries, 228 yards, 1 TD; 9 targets, 7 catches, 51 yards, 5.7 yards/target)

Even blue-chip freshmen usually produce freshman numbers. Hurd was a huge get for Butch Jones in last year's recruiting class, but he's struggled at times. He showed plenty of potential against Oklahoma and Georgia (216 yards, 5.7 per carry), then averaged 3.4 per carry over the next four games. With Dobbs distracting defenses, however, he's found a bit more room. He carried 21 times for 125 yards against South Carolina and 24 for 118 against Kentucky.

The explosiveness here is minimal, however.

Highlight yards are the yards the line doesn't get credit for in the Line Yards equation; runners get no credit for zero- to four-yard gains, half-credit for five to nine, and full credit for 10+. It is a simplification, but it's a pretty good tool. Highlight Yards Per Opportunity, then, are highlight yards divided by highlight opportunities, i.e. rushes that gain at least five yards. It's a way to measure explosiveness independent of efficiency.

The national average for Highlight Yards Per Opportunity is about 5.1 at the moment. Hurd is averaging just 3.6, Derrell Scott is averaging 4.0, and Marlin Lane is averaging 4.1. Even Dobbs himself is averaging just 4.4. The goal for the run game is to move the chains and set up easier passes. Asking for it to do more will probably lead to a loss.

Marquez North (6'4, 221, So.) (53 targets, 30 catches, 320 yards, 6.0 yards/target, 4 TD)
Jason Croom (6'5, 243, So.) (31 targets, 18 catches, 295 yards, 9.5 yards/target, 3 TD)

Pig Howard (5'8, 187, Jr.) (60 targets, 39 catches, 444 yards, 7.4 yards/target, 1 TD; 12 carries, 64 yards, 2 TD)
Johnathan Johnson (5'9, 186, Jr.) (11 targets, 7 catches, 103 yards, 9.4 per target, 2 TD)

Josh Malone (6'3, 204, Fr.) (44 targets, 22 catches, 227 yards, 5.2 per target, 1 TD; 2 carries, 11 yards)
Von Pearson (6'3, 183, Jr.) (31 targets, 25 catches, 264 yards, 8.5 per target, 4 TD; 5 carries, 19 yards)

Ethan Wolf (6'5, 240, Fr.) (29 targets, 21 catches, 203 yards, 7.0 per target)
Alex Ellis (6'4, 238, Jr.) (6 targets, 5 catches, 84 yards, 14.0 per target)
Daniel Helm (6'4, 240, Fr.) (12 targets, 5 catches, 38 yards, 3.2 per target)

The Tennessee receiving corps is scary in the flashes it's shown. You can contain it -- it's no better than Texas A&M's, that's for sure, but random guys pop up at random times. Pig Howard caught a combined 11 passes for 188 yards against Florida and South Carolina this year. Marquez North, who very much looks the part, caught 10 for 123 against Oklahoma and Alabama. Big Jason Croom caught three for 87 last week and four for 60 against Georgia. Von Pearson caught seven for 99 the last two weeks. Josh Malone had five for 75 against Ole Miss.

A lot of different guys, in a lot of different shapes and sizes, can victimize your defensive backs, but there's never any guarantee that any of them will. Consistency has been an issue, and injuries haven't helped -- North has been nagged by a shoulder injury over the last two weeks and hasn't caught a pass; Pearson needed a while to get past a high ankle sprain before beginning to look healthy these last couple of weeks.

Kyler Kerbyson (6'4, 312, Jr.) (10 career starts)
Brett Kendrick (6'6, 316, RSFr.) (2 career starts)

Marcus Jackson (6'2, 306, Jr.) (14 career starts)
Austin Sanders (6'5, 311, RSFr.) -- POSSIBLY INJURED

Mack Crowder (6'2, 295, Jr.) (11 career starts) -- POSSIBLY INJURED
Dylan Wiesman (6'3, 303, So.)

Jashon Robertson (6'3, 304, Fr.) (10 career starts)
Brett Kendrick (6'6, 316, RSFr.)

Jacob Gilliam (6'4, 297, Sr.) (4 career starts)
Coleman Thomas (6'6, 328, Fr.) (5 career starts)

At the end of last season, seven Tennessee linemen had combined to start 184 games. It was a unit of strength for a couple of years in a row. But five of the seven left, taking 178 of the career starts with them. Even 10 games into the season, the UT two-deep above has combined for only 56 career starts -- 45 if Mack Crowder cannot go. (He's regarded as doubtful at the moment.)

As with any young line, there has been inconsistency; Tennessee still grades out pretty well in run blocking (42nd in Adj. Line Yards, which gives a pretty big indictment to the UT backs for not doing more with the blocking) but struggled drastically to protect Worley. Dobbs' elusiveness has paid off in that regard.

There's been some shuffling, too. Tennessee settled on a starting five of Kerbyson, Jackson, Crowder, Robertson, and Gilliam the last two games, but Crowder being out would end that streak.

Quite simply, the matchup of UT's offensive line versus Missouri's defensive line could determine the ball game. The Missouri secondary passed a significant test last week, keeping A&M mostly in check without Aarion Penton and (for a half) Braylon Webb. The Tigers have their full defensive contingent on display, plus a healthy Markus Golden up front, and if they win the trenches, the secondary should be able to keep the receivers in check.

While Dobbs has become a hell of a quarterback in a very short amount of time, if he's dealing with tons of second-and-9s and third-and-7s with a receiving corps that is only occasionally producing open receivers, he's going to struggle. My opinion of Dobbs has changed dramatically over the last two weeks, but if Mizzou controls the line, the Tigers can control the Vols.