A pair of unblemished records are on the line this weekend when the Tennessee Volunteers travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M in a top-10 matchup.
For the first time this season, the 5-0 Vols are entering a game as an underdog. It’s only their second true road game and it’s coming against the No. 8 team in the nation. In other words, Tennessee has their work cut out for them.
Here are five things the Vols must accomplish if their undefeated season is to remain in tact.
No. 1: Protect Josh Dobbs
Through their first five games, the Texas A&M defense has a total of 15 sacks, nearly twice as many as Tennessee and its defensive line have managed. The Vols’ offensive line has been porous this season, putting quarterback Josh Dobbs under tremendous pressure on seemingly every snap. Dobbs’ mobility has helped him escape some bad situations, but he’s been sacked 10 times so far. Star A&M defensive end Myles Garrett missed last week with an injury, but he’s expected to suit up against Tennessee. Even if he is unable to play, the Aggies have several intimidating linemen that will give the Vols all they can handle. If the offensive line is unable to protect Dobbs from the Aggie onslaught, it will be a long afternoon for the Vols.
No. 2: Get pressure on Trevor Knight
Just as Texas A&M will be attacking Dobbs, Tennessee needs to get after the Aggie quarterback. Trevor Knight isn’t a superstar, but he’s a capable starter, especially when he’s not dealing with pressure from defenders. So far this year, he has faced very little of that. The A&M offensive line has only allowed four sacks on the year, two of which came against their backups in the second half of their blowout win over Prairie View in week two. The Vols’ defensive line is full of talented players, with Derek Barnett looking unstoppable at times this year. Barnett alone has exactly half of his team’s eight sacks, but there’s a lot of potential in this unit that hasn’t been fully realized yet this season. Pressuring Knight and forcing him to make mistakes could slow the Aggie offense enough for Tennessee to take control of the game.
No. 3: Don’t give up big plays on defense
Texas A&M has managed a number of huge offensive plays this season, especially on the ground. They’ve had touchdown runs of 49, 32, 89, 42, 48 and 33 yards in their first five games, and Knight has managed to fire off several long touchdown passes to his receivers. Tennessee has been solid against the run, but the Aggies have the best rushing attack they’ll have faced all year. Still, the big passes should be more worrisome for the Vols. A rash of injuries and suspensions in the back seven has given Tennessee a number of issues defending passes. Though they’ve only allowed 221.8 passing yards per game, they have given up big chunks at a time. Backup Florida quarterback Austin Appleby spent the first half of its game in Neyland Stadium torturing an overmatched secondary, and true freshman Georgia quarterback took advantage of a concentration lapse from Vol cornerback Malik Foreman to throw a beautiful deep touchdown that probably should have been the game-winner for the Bulldogs. Giving up big plays in an atmosphere as raucous as Kyle Field could spell doom for Tennessee.
No. 4: Hold on to the ball
This one seems obvious, but it’s important. The Texas A&M defense has managed to force a number of fumbles this year, though they’ve only managed to recover slightly over half of their fumbles (2.2 fumbles forced per game vs. 1.2 recovered, via TeamRankings.com). The Vols have had absurd luck in terms of recovering fumbles this year. It’s possible that their luck can continue, but a conference road game against a top-10 opponent is the last place to try and test that out. Even if they manage to recover their fumbles, Tennessee should still be wary of A&M’s secondary. After throwing a total of five interceptions last year, Dobbs has already thrown six in his first five games of the 2016 campaign. The Aggies’ secondary isn’t particularly frightening, but they’re no slouches either. The last thing the Vols want to do is to help their opponents get good field position in what should already be a tough matchup.
No. 5: Handle a hostile atmosphere
This goes hand-in-hand with the third goal of not allowing big plays. Saturday’s game is only the second true road game that the Vols have played. With all due respect to Georgia and Sanford Stadium, Kyle Field will be the most intimidating venue for the Vols all season long. Kyle Field is one of the few stadiums in the world larger than Neyland Stadium, and the volume levels could provide major problems for Tennessee. Any big plays made by the Aggies on either side of the ball will just mean an even louder crowd and a more difficult time for the Vols. Dobbs’ ability to call audibles and communicate with his offense will be hindered greatly. The offense’s response to that challenge will be hugely important.
Tennessee faces a number of challenges in Saturday’s marquee matchup with Texas A&M. If they can accomplish some of the things on this list, they’ll have a chance to win and move to 6-0 and take firm control of the SEC East going into next week’s matchup with Alabama.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics