Tennessee has crossed two major hurdles in recent weeks with victories over Georgia and Florida, but the schedule won’t get any easier for the Volunteers with a trip to College Station against Texas A&M this Saturday. This is the first meeting between the Aggies and Volunteers as members of the SEC.
After defeating the Bulldogs and Gators, Tennessee is positioned as the clear favorite in the East Division. Essentially, the Volunteers have a two-game lead in the East but can’t afford to take their foot off the pedal. After Saturday’s game in College Station, Tennessee hosts Alabama on Oct. 15. The Volunteers can afford one loss and still remain in the conversation to make the College Football Playoff. However, two losses would put coach Butch Jones’ team outside of the playoff mix and needing a Florida defeat to regain control of the East. Over the last two weeks, Tennessee’s offense has started to show signs of life. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has connected on a handful of key passes, including the game-winning Hail Mary score to Jauan Jennings to defeat Georgia last Saturday. There’s no question last week was a huge victory for Tennessee. However, Jones has to quickly get this team refocused for a tough trip to College Station.
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin entered 2016 on the hot seat, but after five weeks, the fifth-year coach is making a run at SEC Coach of the Year honors. Guided by one of the SEC’s best defenses and a balanced offense, the Aggies are off to a 5-0 start. This program started 5-0 last season but finished 3-5 over the final eight games. While last year’s hot start and slow finish is certainly a concern, this Texas A&M team feels and looks different. The Aggies have stability at quarterback with Trevor Knight and a much-needed direction on offense. Additionally, this team has improved on defense under coordinator John Chavis and dominated the line of scrimmage in a win over Arkansas earlier this year. Most rankings have Texas A&M projected as the No. 2 team in the SEC behind Alabama. A win over Tennessee would certainly solidify the Aggies’ place as the biggest threat to the Crimson Tide.
Tennessee holds a 2-0 series edge over Texas A&M. Both matchups took place in bowl games, with the last meeting coming in the 2005 Cotton Bowl.
Tennessee at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Texas A&M -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas A&M’s Defensive Line Versus Joshua Dobbs
As evidenced in the win over Arkansas, Texas A&M’s defensive line has the ability to dominate and take over the overall flow of the game. However, there’s an asterisk by this unit for Saturday’s game. Just how healthy is star end Myles Garrett? The junior has recorded three sacks in four games but missed last week’s win over South Carolina due to an injury suffered against Arkansas. While coach Kevin Sumlin won’t comment on injuries, it seems likely Garrett will see some action on Saturday. And even if Garrett is limited, just having the junior coming off the edge in any role is a huge concern for Tennessee’s offensive line. The Aggies are more than just Myles Garrett up front, as Daeshon Hall (three sacks) is another All-SEC caliber end. This unit has made progress against the run too, limiting opponents to 134.8 yards per game after surrendering 213.7 per contest in 2015.
Texas A&M’s line talent and production this year is a huge test for Tennessee’s offense. The Volunteers have surrendered 10 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss through five games. Generating a push in the rushing attack has also been a problem. After ranking second in the SEC in rushing offense in 2015, Tennessee has slipped to eighth and is averaging only 4.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has made progress as a passer over the last two weeks, but the strength of this offense is still Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara on the ground. However, Hurd is unlikely to play on Saturday afternoon, leaving Kamara as the team's feature back. Will the Volunteers establish enough of a presence here to keep the offense out of third-and-long situations? Or will Texas A&M’s defensive line once again dominate the line of scrimmage? Dobbs is at his best when he can move around and make plays with his legs. The senior will need to create a couple of big plays by using mobility on Saturday afternoon.
2. Tennessee’s Defense Against Texas A&M’s Offense
New coordinator Bob Shoop was one of the nation’s top assistant hires for 2016 and has helped Tennessee’s defense take a step forward. The Volunteers are holding opponents to 5.03 yards per play and 23 points per contest. However, this unit has been hit hard by injuries since the first snap of 2016. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is not expected to play, and top cornerback Cam Sutton is out indefinitely due to an ankle injury. Sophomore linebacker Darrin Kirkland is also not expected to play this week after missing the last three matchups due to an ankle injury. In addition to the injury concerns, this is the best and most balanced attack Tennessee’s defense has faced in 2016. The Aggies have rushed for 1,293 yards and passed for 1,312 yards this fall.
A big reason for the improvement and overall direction of the offense for Texas A&M was the addition of veteran play-caller Noel Mazzone. The Aggies rank second in the SEC by averaging 6.8 yards per play and post over 500 yards (521) per contest. Graduate transfer Trevor Knight has provided stability under center and brings a dual-threat element to the offense. Knight ranks second on the team with 392 rushing yards and has passed for 1,261 yards and seven scores. The senior can be streaky as a passer but has connected on seven plays of 40 yards or more. The Aggies have a deep collection of targets at receiver, which will test a Tennessee secondary ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Knight isn’t the only weapon on the ground for Texas A&M, as Trayveon Williams (9.02 ypc) and Keith Ford (4.95) provide two other options for Mazzone.
Stopping Texas A&M’s high-powered attack won’t be easy, and Tennessee needs a huge effort from end Derek Barnett (four sacks over the last two games). In addition to getting pressure on Knight, the Volunteers have to limit the Aggies’ big plays and force this offense to work the length of the field.
3. The Second Half and Turnovers
It’s no secret Tennessee has been a second-half team in wins over Florida and Georgia. The Volunteers rallied from a 21-3 first-half deficit to beat the Gators 38-28 and defeated the Bulldogs 34-31 after trailing 17-7 at the end of two quarters. Both Florida and Georgia are solid on defense but rallying from a deficit against Texas A&M is a tougher hill for Tennessee to climb. The Aggies allow only 4.9 yards per play and the crowd at Kyle Field should give Sumlin’s team plenty of help – assuming Texas A&M has a lead – in the second half. A field goal or touchdown deficit is manageable, but the Volunteers can’t afford to fall behind again by 14 or 17 points against the Aggies’ defense.
Turnovers are also going to play a key role in this matchup. Tennessee is plus-one in turnover margin, while Texas A&M is plus-two. The Volunteers have experienced some good luck in this department, as they have recovered seven of 11 fumbles by opponents. That’s among the best in the nation at 70 percent – a rate hard to sustain all year. Some regression is due here for Tennessee, but Texas A&M has lost eight turnovers through five games. The Aggies have lost two turnovers in four out of the five matchups in 2016. If Tennessee can force Texas A&M into a couple of mistakes, coach Butch Jones’ team may not need a second-half rally to spring the upset.
Without Hurd, Reeves-Maybin, Sutton and Kirkland, winning at College Station is going to be a tough assignment for the Volunteers. Tennessee has been a strong second-half team this season and has caught a few lucky bounces here and there. However, make no mistake about this team. The Volunteers are one of the top 10-15 teams in the nation and are starting to put the pieces in place on offense. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs will create a few plays with his legs and make life difficult for Texas A&M’s defense in first half. However, the Aggies eventually control the line of scrimmage on defense, while Knight and the talented skill players on offense score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter to keep Texas A&M unbeaten headed into an important bye week next Saturday.