KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The 19th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers should be well-rested coming off an open date. They need edit considering they start a critical three-game stretch Saturday at home against Texas A&M.
The Vols then hit the road for a two-game road swing at No. 11 Alabama and then No. 24 Kentucky. The Aggies A&M (4-2, 2-1 SEC) come in looking to bounce back from a disappointing 26-20 loss to Alabama.
The home fans should have Tennessee focused on Texas A&M’s second visit to Neyland Stadium. This will be the seventh time Vols’ fans have turned the stands into an orange and white checkerboard with another sellout crowd on hand.
“This is a big football game that is coming up, really good football team that we are playing,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Checker Neyland. Excited to see all of our fans and the atmosphere Saturday afternoon. I know our guys and our staff are ready to get back on the field.”
This game pits strength against strength.
The Aggies bring the nation’s 10th-ranked defense yielding a mere 268.8 yards a game while also leading the nation in tackles for loss (9.5 per game). They have not allowed an opponent to run for more than 100 yards and passing in a game this season.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher is impressed with what the Vols (4-1, 1-1) do offensively, especially running the ball with Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson.
“(They) all have juice and are strong,” Fisher said.
They are why Tennessee ranks seventh nationally averaging 231.2 yards rushing a game. Wright ran for 123 yards in the Vols’ 41-20 win over South Carolina before their break.
“It’s going to be a battle on the offensive line of scrimmage,” Sampson said.
The Aggies seemingly haven’t missed a beat since losing quarterback Conner Weigman for the season with a foot injury against Auburn. Lefty Max Johnson, the son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson, has made a seamless transition after playing in just four games last season after two seasons at LSU.
“(Johnson) is a smart decision-maker,” said Heupel. “He is able to extend and make some plays with his arm.”
FINDING A TARGET
The season-ending ankle injury to Tennessee wide receiver Bru McCoy sent coaches using the open date to find options for his replacement. Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White are solid, but Dont’e Thornton, Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod are all possibilities for more work.
Also, tight ends Jacob Warren and McAllen Castles are candidates to get more involved in the passing game.
“I expect all of them to play at a high level,” Heupel said.
LAMENTING A LOSS
The Aggies have to prove they have shaken off losing to Alabama after holding the lead.
“You flip the page,” veteran offensive lineman Layden Robinson said. “It’s a tough loss, especially after you’ve been working hard all week. We’ve got to do our job and move on.”
Both teams come in playing stingy defense on third down. Not only do the Aggies pile up a bunch of tackles for loss, they also rank sixth in the country allowing 17 of 79 (25%) conversions on third down. Tennessee isn’t far behind with oponents converting 27 of 84 (32%).
HITTING THE ROAD
Fisher saw the impact a raucous home crowd can have on a team last week when Aggies fans caused Alabama’s offense to commit eight false-start penalties. He understood that his team is going to face a similar situation at Neyland Stadium.
He and his Aggies routed Tennessee in then-coach Jeremy Pruitt’s last game at Tennessee before only 22,645 fans in their only previous visit to Knoxville in 2020 due to pandemic limitations.
“Tennessee is one of those tough places, but hopefully, our maturity and leadership – we’re a little older this year – hopefully those things will help,” Fisher said.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll