Tennessee at Texas A&M
When: Saturday, Oct. 8, Time TBA
Where: College Station, Tex. (Kyle Field/102,733)
Texas A&M at a glance
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (36-15/5th year at A&M)
All-time record: 717-466-48
2015 results: 8-4 (4-4 SEC); lost to Louisville in the Music City Bowl
Record against Tennessee: Tennessee leads the series 2-0
It’s been a crazy year in College Station, there’s no doubt. On the field, the results were mediocre – a 4-4 conference campaign and an 8-4 overall mark. That’s understandable in the rugged SEC West, but another step in the wrong direction for Kevin Sumlin, who has seen his season win total either decrease or stay stagnant every year since the Aggies’ 11-2 season in 2012.
Quarterback controversy swirled on and off the field. Having two elite, five-star quarterbacks in Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray should’ve been a good thing. It turned into a bit of a disaster. The Aggies never found a complete rhythm with either, and with neither content with the situation at A&M, both officially bolted after the season.
On the field, there was a promising 5-0 start before back-to-back, three-possession losses to Alabama and Ole Miss quickly derailed any title hopes that the Aggies had. They were mediocre from that point forward, knocking off Vanderbilt and South Carolina, but dropping winnable games against Auburn and LSU down the stretch.
The run game came alive with Tra Carson stepping up for a 1,000-yard season on the ground. But while the Aggies had an impressive host of receivers such as star freshman Christian Kirk, veteran Josh Reynolds and others, inconsistencies at quarterback kept the offense from ever reaching its potential.
Defensively, the Aggies – led superstar defensive end Myles Garrett – did a great job getting after the quarterback, but defensive coordinator John Chavis could never crack down on the run. They finished second to last in the league in rushing defense, an area that doomed them against physical teams like LSU and Alabama in 2015.
Three questions for this game:
1. Will the real Trevor Knight please stand up?
The exodus at quarterback opened the door to graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who had lost his starting job at Oklahoma to Heisman contender Baker Mayfield, and was one of the most coveted players “on the market” this offseason for QB-needy teams. Knight is a bit of an enigma.
After putting up one of the most impressive performances against Alabama in the Nick Saban era in the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 season for Oklahoma, Knight was dubbed the future of that position for OU, and even a Heisman hopeful. He didn’t live up to that hype, however, and put together a mediocre 2014 campaign (he did throw for 308 yards against Tennessee that year in arguably his best game) before Mayfield snatched his job in 2015.
Like his career in general, reports have been mixed about how he’s acclimating with the Aggies. He’s shown he has the talent. Sumlin has shown he can produce big numbers from QBs. If it all clicks, it could be a rebound year for both, but it’s far from a certainty.
2. Can Tennessee match up to A&M’s quartet of receivers?
One through four, A&M might have the best receivers in the conference. They can be matchup nightmares. Kirk and Reynolds are proven producers, but Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, while inconsistent, have worlds of potential. The Vols can feel pretty good about Cam Sutton locking somebody down. But it’ll take a group effort, and with some level of uncertainty at several other spots in the secondary for UT, this will be a challenge.
3. Can A&M slow Tennessee on the ground?
It would be foolish to think that Chavis won’t improve that rushing defense. But the Aggies will be majorly tested against Jalen Hurd, Joshua Dobbs and Alvin Kamara – who spearheaded the league’s second-best rushing attacking 2015, and the second-best rushing season in school history for the Vols.
Bonus: Can Derek Barnett out-shine Myles Garrett?
No, they won’t go head-t0-head, but you have to think that UT defensive end Derek Barnett would love to pick up a couple sacks at Kyle Field to make a statement about where he stands among the league’s best pass rushers. Most analysts give that nod to Garrett, so UT will look to minimize him and let Barnett continue his climb towards Tennessee’s all-time sack record.
How do we expect it to play out?
This game is a complete wild card on UT’s schedule. The Vols are the early Vegas favorites, but there’s no telling what these teams will look like in mid-October. There are a few things that work in the Aggies’ favor in this matchup.
First, this could be the classic “trap game” scenario for Tennessee. A&M is prestigious and talented enough that nobody should overlook it, but Tennessee has massive East matchups against Florida and Georgia the previous two weeks, with a huge home game against Alabama up next. A&M could get slightly lost in that shuffle. The Aggies, meanwhile, do play three straight SEC games before this one, but South Carolina is the week before and a bye is up next, so the Vols should have their undivided attention.
Secondly, the SEC West has been an absolute house of horrors for Tennessee in recent history. You have to go back to 2010 to find any victory against a West opponent for the Vols (Ole Miss). Amazingly, you have to go all the way to 2007 to find a win on the road in the West for UT (Mississippi State).
That’s all somewhat ancient history for the Vols now, as they know they have to create their own history going forward after a dark recent history. But this will clearly be a big challenge against a talented team that will be playing in front of one of the best crowds in college football.
Tennessee certainly can win this game, but it will take a high level of confidence and maturity. If the Vols let this one get lost in the shuffle of the four-game mid-season gauntlet, the Aggies will get this one.