Texas A&M’s flaws along the offensive line came home to roost against Alabama while the defensive line continued to show dramatic improvements against the run game. A bit of a mixed bag as it were. Unfortunately, in spite of allowing just 23 yards rushing to Alabama, the Aggies were unable to defend against the passing attack of the Tide. The brutality of the SEC schedule continues as the Aggies head East to Knoxville to take on Tennessee. What needs to happen in the trenches for Texas A&M to defeat Tennessee? We’ll start with the offensive line.
After being serviceable against Auburn and Arkansas, the Texas A&M offensive line struggled mightily against the Crimson Tide. The good news for the Aggies is that they likely won’t face a front seven as good as Alabama’s again this season. Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell ate the offensive tackles alive while the interior of the defensive line anchored by Tim Smith stifled the Texas A&M rushing attack.
The Tennessee defense caught a lot of flack in 2022 for holding back the Vols offense but there is no doubt this unit has improved in ‘23. A big part of that has been their ability to rush the passer as Tennessee leads the nation in sacks per game. James Pearce Jr. ranks fourth in the SEC with 5 sacks on the year and leads the Vols. I expect Pearce to be a problem for the tackle pairing of Zuhn and Bisontis. If there is a silver lining to be found, it may be the level of offensive line Tennessee has played so far in 2023. Perhaps the numbers are a bit overinflated but I’m not buying it.
The vulnerability for this Tennessee defense comes on the interior. In their lone loss, the Volunteers surrendered 183 yards rushing to the Florida Gators on the road. I’d expect the Aggies to try and replicate that attack, and build from there. In fact, even in their victory over South Carolina, the Vols surrendered 4.9 yards per carry. Get Le’Veon Moss going early and then see if the passing attack opens up. Evan Stewart and Ainias Smith can beat this secondary but the offensive line will need to prove they can run the ball so Max Johnson doesn’t face pressure every dropback. If A&M can’t get the run game going, they’ll have to hope Johnson can survive constant hits and get the ball off without turning it over. Otherwise, things could get ugly in a hurry.
Texas A&M’s rushing defense has been simply astounding in 2023. The Aggies have allowed just 84 yards per game on the ground so far this season. Additionally, Texas A&M is second behind Tennessee in sacks per game this season with 4.33. As mentioned above, Texas A&M completely shut down the Alabama rushing attack. The matchup of this defensive line against Tennessee’s offensive line presents one of the most intriguing battles in all of college football on Saturday.
The Volunteers have allowed just 1.2 sacks per game so far through 2023. They were known for their aerial prowess in 2022 but given the loss of their starting quarterback and tremendous receiving options, it’s no surprise that the passing attack took a bit of a step back. What is surprising is Tennessee’s ability to run the ball so far this season. The Vols are seventh in the country with 230 yards rushing per game. In other words, something has to give on Saturday - either Texas A&M’s rushing defense or Tennessee’s rushing attack.
What makes this Tennessee rushing offense particularly challenging is the Vols’ penchant to spread their wide receivers as far out as possible. This makes it much more difficult to disguise pressure and coverages. If Texas A&M looks to focus on stopping the run, the secondary will be on an island immediately. If the Aggies try to compensate for their flagging secondary by covering the perimeter, Tennessee will recognize a light box and likely look to run.
Truthfully, I think the Volunteers will be able to attack Texas A&M’s secondary regardless. I’d rather see the Aggies focus on slowing down this rushing attack and playing a physical brand of defense, similar to how the Gators were able to stifle Tennessee’s offense in the Swamp. Texas A&M is going to surrender the long ball at points throughout the game on Saturday. The best hope the Aggies have is getting in the face of quarterback Joe Milton and forcing mistakes. If Texas A&M’s pass rush can force a turnover or two, there’s a real shot for an upset. If Milton gets the ball to receivers like Squirrel White with room to run, it’s going to be a long day for the Aggies.
The x-factor? Center Cooper Mays has returned for Tennessee after missing the first four games of the season. I worry his presence will allow the Vols to better pick up pressures. Keep an eye on him matching up with either McKinnley Jackson or Walter Nolen in the run game as well.
Though hot chicken is found West of Knoxville in the hub city of Nashville, Tennessee - I thought the Vols represented a perfect opportunity to talk about one of my favorite sandwiches I’ve had at a Texas barbecue joint.
The Funkytown Hot Chicken Sandwich takes a Nashville Classic and gives it a bonafide Texas twist. Traditional Nashville hot chicken takes a dip in spiced hot oil to get it’s flavoring. At Brix, the oil in question is beef tallow giving the delicious sandwich a smoky hint absent from the Nashville version. The sandwich also comes with “Dank Sauce” - a flavor I’d most closely compare to Chuy’s creamy jalapeno dip.
The sandwich is a divine bit of flavor and one of my favorite uses for beef tallow in the world of barbecue. If you find yourself in Fort Worth, be sure to stop in and give Brix a try. It’s a proper hot chicken sandwich for an opponent from the Volunteer State.