As the 2020 college football regular season comes to a close in Week 16, there are other showdowns with College Football Playoff implications outside of conference championship games — namely the pairing of the Texas A&M Aggies and Tennessee Volunteers. The No. 5 Aggies make the long haul to Neyland Stadium on Saturday to face a Tennessee team with newly found fight in hopes of impressing the selection committee for an at-large bid to the final dance.
After the Aggies made repeated attempts to play Ole Miss, the teams finally threw in the towel last week when the Rebels could not meet the SEC's COVID-19 protocols to take the field. The Aggies (7-1) had to put their six-game winning streak on hold after a 31-20 road thumbing of Auburn. Against the Tigers, A&M used a 17-point fourth-quarter run to claim the win. While claiming the victory, the Aggies steamrolled on the ground for 313 yards.
Tennessee is glad in-state rival Vanderbilt chose to suit up last week despite having a decimated roster because the Volunteers (3-6) finally put an end to their frustrating six-game losing streak. In the runaway 42-17 win, the Volunteers broke the game open with a 21-point second quarter using their own powerful rushing attack and compiled 212 yards of offense. The defense was stout against the Commodores' ground game and kept the home team to just 53 yards.
No. 5 Texas A&M at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Texas A&M -14
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
Behind a physical offensive line, the Aggies' growing identity is a rushing attack that cannot be stopped. Sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller has fulfilled his promise as a four-star recruit out of the 2019 class sliding into third in the SEC in yards (897) — despite having 30+ fewer carries than the backs ahead of him — with a chance to top 1,000 on Saturday. In five out of the last six games, Spiller has rushed for at least 114 yards while totaling six rushing scores. As the season has worn on, a trouble spot for Spiller is consecutive games with a lost fumble.
With a reliable rushing attack, there has been less of the emphasis on the arm of senior quarter Kellen Mond. A&M has slowly become more of a balanced attack, averaging 228.5 yards in the air and 201.3 on the ground. Mond's talents have morphed into a game manager, as he is completing 61.1 percent of his attempts with a shining 18:2 touchdown to interception ratio. When the chains need to be moved on third and long, tight end Jalen Wydermyer and slotback Ainias Smith are among the top playmakers in the conference.
During the first five games of Tennessee's losing streak, the defense was allowing 182.6 rush yards per game. In the sixth loss, Florida's Kyle Trask threw for 433 yards with four touchdowns. With points going up on the board, the defense found renewed energy and held Vanderbilt to 292 yards of total offense. Adding to output, the Volunteers came away with a pick and a fumble while keeping their opponent to 3-of-18 on third-down attempts.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Outside of a negative-1-yard performance against Georgia, Tennessee's rushing attack has been the one fairly reliable part of the offense during the 2020 season. The Vols, led by Eric Gray, has put together three 200-yard ground games and scored 12 total touchdowns, all of which have come from three players: Eric Gray (4), Ty Chandler (4), and former starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (4).
Putting the pressure on the backfield is a receiving corps that does not have a target in the conference's top 20 in receiving yards. Josh Palmer ranks 24th with 420 yards on 30 receptions with four trips into the end zone. The Volunteers do have four other players with 19 or more receptions, but none of the Vols' three quarterbacks has orchestrated the offense efficiently. Guarantano has been demoted after a 6:4 TD:INT ratio is bad, but Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout are both at a 2:3 mark.
Things should not be any easier for Tennessee against Texas A&M. Toss a bad pass coverage outing against Alabama out (435 yards) and a bad game in the trenches against Arkansas (222), and the Aggies defense has been ridiculously good all season. Other than Alabama, only Florida has topped the 300-yard passing plateau against A&M, and the rush defense has kept five opponents to 109 yards or less.
A cacophony of events may have to happen for A&M to slide into the top 4 of the College Football Playoff rankings, but anything can happen at the collegiate level — and it typically does. Aggie Nation is praying for a Clemson loss to Notre Dame and/or Ohio State to lose or barely scrape by Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. But the Aggies have to take care of business on their end first, and a strong showing in the margin of victory usually turns heads.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher's offense is fourth in the SEC in yards (429.8) and fifth in points (31.4) per game, perhaps giving a ho-hum outward appearance. If there is an opportunity to get style points on the road, Fisher and Co. have to pull out all the stops. Tennessee's defense is accustomed to giving up 30 per game. A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko may have to keep the pressure on until the end to help vault the Aggies to where they want to be with outside help from the football gods.
Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Tennessee 17
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— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.