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Evaluating Tennessee’s potential two additional opponents for 2020

(Photo courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics)

Second-least favorable matchup: Texas A&M Aggies

Maybe 2020 is the year that media members finally get the prediction of Texas A&M breaking out under Jimbo Fisher correct. The Aggies have the talent and the experience to do so. According to ESPN, A&M is returning the 16th-most production in the entire country.

It all starts and begins with Kellen Mond for Fisher’s third-year Aggies. Mond enters the season less than 700 yards from becoming the all-time leading passer in school history. He’s also an accomplished runner. Along with Johnny Manziel, Mond is one of only two quarterbacks in school history with at least 7,000 career passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.

Two areas Mond must improve on is his performances on the road and on third downs. Mond has been much better at Kyle Field than he is away from it, even in neutral settings. His passer rating is nearly 40 points worse on the road and 16 of his 24 career interceptions have been on the road. On third downs last season, he completed 47.6% of all third down throws which ranked 17th overall in the league.

Mond will have multiple weapons to work with, though young ones. Sophomore Isaiah Spiller led the Aggies in carries (174), rushing yards (946) and rushing touchdowns (10) as a true freshman last year while averaging 5.44 yards per carry. Fellow sophomore Ainias Smith will also factor into the equation after making the move from receiver to running back.

Senior Jhamon Ausbon will lead a young receiver group that lacks experience, but has plenty of talent. Ausbon led A&M last year with 66 receptions for 872 receiving yards, and finished second on the team with five receiving touchdowns.

Tight ends Jalen Wydermyer and Baylor Cupp will also be key targets for Mond. Wydermyer caught a team-high six touchdowns last year as a true freshman. Cupp, a redshirt freshman, is expected to help Wydermyer form one of the best tight end duos in the country as he returns from a leg injury that cost him the 2019 season.

Texas A&M’s offensive line that returns four starters will determine how successful the offense is in 2020. The three returning senior starters — Dan Moore, Carson Green and Jared Hocker — have blocked for an SEC rushing champion (Trayveon Williams in 2018) and a true freshman who almost reached 1,000 yards (Isaiah Spiller in 2019). But they’ve also been part of a group that has allowed 69 sacks during the last two seasons to rank 13th among all SEC teams during that time frame. Mond has been under pressure per more than any other quarterback during that time with 258 total throws coming under duress.

In 2019, A&M was ranked 29th nationally in total defense and 36th in scoring defense. The Aggies did that despite a limited pass rush and a secondary that allowed far too many big plays. The Aggies haven’t produced many turnovers under defensive coordinator Mike Elko. They forced just 14 in 2019 to rank 13th in the SEC after producing 11 in 2018.

Justin Madubuike is the biggest departure off of last year’s defense. Senior Jayden Peevy  and junior Bobby Brown hope to fill the void at defensive tackle. Sophomore Demarvin Leal and senior Michael Clemons will line up next to the tackles as the starting defensive ends. Leal enjoyed an All-SEC Freshman season last year in which he recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Establishing a pass rush will be key after A&M only recorded 29 sacks last season.

Linebacker will be the strength of the defense with junior Anthony Hines and senior Buddy Johnson leading the way. In their first season as starters last year, both tallied at least 70 tackles and nine tackles for loss. The duo still needs to improve in 2020 following a season in which they allowed 67 running yards of at least 10 yards. Only three SEC teams allowed more.

As it was mentioned, A&M’s secondary struggled mightily to limit big plays. Seniors Elijah Blades and Myles Jones are expected to be the starting corners. Sophomore Demani Richardson will lock down one of the starting safety spots, while Keldrick Carper, Brian Williams, Erick Young and Antonio Doyle Jr. will battle to start next to Richardson. Five-star signee Jaylon Jones is expected to compete for immediate playing time at corner.

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