The SEC is by far the best conference in college football and five of the past nine Heisman Trophy winners, including last year's, are from the SEC.
Close Losses Plague Dobbs, UT In 2015
I'll bet if you asked a casual college football fan who is old enough to remember whether or not Peyton Manning won a Heisman Trophy at Tennessee, that person would think that Manning had. He was the heavy favorite on college football odds entering his senior season -- many thought he would leave after his junior year -- but finished a close second to Michigan's Charles Woodson, still the only defensive player to win the award.
Tennessee has had four Heisman second-place finishers, with quarterback Heath Shuler (1993), running back Johnny Majors (1956) and tailback Hank Lauricella (1951) joining Manning but never a winner. Dobbs is a legitimate candidate if the Vols take a big step forward this season like many experts believe they will. They better or Coach Butch Jones, despite being a terrific recruiter, might be fired.
In 2015, the Volunteers were a chic pick to win the SEC East. And if they knew how to win close games, they might have done so. On Sept. 12, Tennessee was ranked No. 23 and hosted No. 19 Oklahoma, but the Vols blew a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead and lost in double overtime to a Sooners team that would reach the College Football Playoff. Needless to say, that didn't affect UT's SEC chances, but it began a trend of crushing losses:
*-Sept. 26 at Florida: Tennessee led 27-14 with under five minutes left in the fourth quarter. But UF would take a 28-27 lead on a 63-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Callaway with 1:26 left on fourth-and-14. How do you allow that!?! UT kicker Aaron Medley missed twice from 55 yards with 3 seconds on the clock for the win.
*-Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas: The Hogs had lost 10 straight games decided by seven points or fewer and were down 14-0 midway through the first quarter. But the Vols were held to just three points and 90 total yards after halftime in losing 24-20.
*-Oct. 24 at No. 8 Alabama: The Vols took a 14-13 lead on a 12-yard Jalen Hurd TD run with 5:49 left, but Tide running back Derrick Henry, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, scored the go-ahead TD on a 14-yard run with 2:24 to go. The Tide won 19-14 as UT's Medley missed a 43-yard field goal and two 51-yarders in the game.
Tennessee wouldn't lose again following that trip to Alabama, closing with six straight wins -- capped by a 45-6 destruction of No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. On the season, Dobbs completed 205 of 344 passes (59.6 percent) for 2,291 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He rushed 146 times or 671 yard and 11 touchdowns.
Looking Ahead To 2016
For Dobbs to be a legitimate Heisman candidate, his Vols probably have to at least reach the SEC title game, and he has to be win those close games. In the loss to Oklahoma, he was just 13-for-31 for 125 yards and managed only 12 yards rushing on 14 carries. Against Florida, Dobbs threw for a season-low 83 yards but did have a big rushing day. Against Arkansas he was solid through the air but held to 7 yards on seven carries. And against Alabama, Dobbs was 13-for-22 for 171 yards but rushed 16 times for only 19 yards. Heisman winners perform at their best on national TV against top opponents.
I do believe Tennessee can win the SEC East Division. No team in the conference has more returning starters than the Vols' 17 (nine on offense, eight on defense). Dobbs has one of the best running back tandems in the nation in Hurd and Alvin Kamara. That could hurt Dobbs' rushing totals but certainly should help him through the air as defenses will have to stack the box to stop the ground game. Dobbs had just three completions of 40 yards or more last season. Keep an eye on sophomore wideout Preston Williams, a former five-star recruit. He barely played last season largely due to off-field issues. Williams is the type of deep guy who can expand the passing attack.
Tennessee should be 3-0 entering SEC play on Sept. 24 in Knoxville against Florida, which has won 11 straight in the series. But I'd favor the Vols there with the Gators having major question marks at quarterback. The three-game stretch that likely determines UT's season and Dobbs' Heisman candidacy is Oct. 1 at Georgia, Oct. 8 at Texas A&M and Oct. 15 vs. Alabama.
If the Vols still have just one loss through that, they should be favored the rest of the way in the regular season and take the East. UT is a third-favorite on college football picks at +500 to win the SEC title game, behind only West clubs Alabama and LSU. Tennessee's win total is set at 9.5. If UT tops that, Dobbs could be headed to New York.