KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — How close is Tennessee in filling the gap in beating Alabama?

It’s just not in beating Alabama, but Nick Saban.

No matter who has coached the Volunteers, Saban has been a thorn in the side of UT football.

It started when he was at LSU. The Vols got him once, courtesy of the “Kelley Washington game” in 2001, but Saban got revenge in the SEC championship game, defeating Tennessee with the Volunteers one victory from facing Miami for the national championship.

Fifteen years later, Tennessee still is seeking to beat the coach who started Phillip Fulmer’s downfall, as well as the Tennessee football program.

Since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Tennessee has never seen victory. Alabama’s streak is at nine consecutive wins entering Saturday’s showdown at Neyland Stadium.

Butch Jones cannot be blamed for the losses from 2007-2012, nor should he remotely be in his first three seasons at Tennessee (2013-2015) while picking up the pieces that Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley left behind.

But it’s clear Jones has built Tennessee from the ground up, and he now has the Vols competing in big games.

The Vols haven’t beaten a No. 1-ranked team since upsetting Auburn in 1985. Can Jones win a huge one Saturday?

He has closed the gap against Alabama each year. In three games, his Vols have scored five touchdowns against Saban’s defenses. From 2007-2012, under Fulmer, Kiffin and Dooley, the Vols only scored six touchdowns against Alabama.

Last season, the Vols drove 75 yards in four plays to score a go-ahead touchdown with just 5:49 left. Alabama responded with a drive that saved its championship hopes and extended Tennessee’s misery in the series.

Still … Joshua Dobbs gave the Vols a chance to win. And Dobbs’ results the past two times he played Alabama are another indication of progress. Dobbs has connected with Josh Malone, Von Pearson and Josh Smith for touchdown passes.

Dobbs twice has set career highs for passing yards in the past three games. He threw for 319 in the comeback win against Florida, then went for 398 last Saturday in the near-miss at Texas A&M.

It’s critical that he continues to make plays with his arm against the Tide because that opens up the Volunteers’ vaunted run game.

Last season, Alabama negated Dobbs’ running ability, holding him to 19 yards on 16 carries (sack totals count against rushing yards, and Dobbs was sacked five times for a loss of 38 yards).

Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) scrambles up the middles against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, Dobbs ran for 75 yards on 19 carries. He caught Alabama off guard, relieving Nathan Peterman on the third series.

Alabama won 34-20, but that was the most points the Vols have scored during this losing streak.

Oct 25, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) rushes against Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Rashaan Evans (32) during the second half game at Neyland Stadium. Alabama won 34-20. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Dobbs also came in relief for Justin Worley in 2013 at halftime due to injury, after the Crimson Tide jumped to a 35-0 halftime lead. Dobbs was able to play Alabama to a 10-10 tie in the second half.

Saturday against Alabama, Dobbs will have to be balanced in attacking Saban’s defense, and the senior quarterback has the ability to do so.