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Fun With Numbers: Tennessee

Previewing the matchup on Rocky Top with advanced stats

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NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Tennessee Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Welcome back to Fun With Numbers, where we talk Aggie Football and advanced stats. Why do we do it? I don’t know. Habit mostly. Regardless, we’re back, it’s October, the Aggies are disappointing, all is as it should be. Let’s get into it.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Oof. That was tough, tough, tough to watch. The Aggie defense did their part, mostly. A few big explosive pass plays when the pressure wasn’t able to get to Milroe (similar to what we saw against Miami) and the third quarter defense was a little sloppier than what we have been used to seeing, but once again in the Jimbo Fisher era, we are talking about a game that was lost due to the offense.

Max Johnson and the Aggie O didn’t necessarily have a bad day, but they certainly didn’t have a day good enough to win this matchup. The Aggie defense secured 2 turnovers, and the offense only managed to get 3 points out of it, and worse yet, committed their own TO and handed the ball back to the Crimson Tide deep in their territory. The OL struggled against a strong Bama defensive front, Max regularly missed open receivers or held the ball too long, but the real issue is that when the Aggies were moving the ball well, they failed to capitalize and get touchdowns. If you wanted me to boil it down to one stat, I’d point to the Tide’s 43% Success Rate in the Red Zone vs the Aggies 24%.

The Aggies now enter a critical 3 game stretch in 4 weeks that include road trips to Tennessee and Ole Miss and a home matchup with South Carolina. If the Aggies go 3-0, the Bama loss is a hurtful memory in a “what could have been season”, but even going 2-1 in those matchups is going to prove incredibly challenging based on what the Aggies are and how they matchup with these opponents. First though, a trip to Rocky Top.

What Do We Know?

The 4-2 Aggies will be looking to avoid their second straight loss against a 4-1 Volunteer squad fresh from a bye week. The Vols most recently beat South Carolina by 3 scores, but also dropped a rivalry match with Florida earlier in the season. They too are entering a critical three game stretch, hosting the Aggies this week and then traveling two weeks in a row to Bama and Kentucky. Vegas likes Tennessee by 3.5 points, the SP+ predicts a score of 28-26 in favor of the home squad, and the FEI sees something similar unfolding (29-25). Let’s see what the matchups look like.

Aggie Offense vs Tennessee Defense

In his 3rd year as the coordinator of the Tennessee defense, Tim Banks has built a really solid group, returning 74% of last year’s production from a team that ranked 21st in DSP+. The Front 7 does a really good job of bringing pressure and creating Havoc and they’re very good at knocking offenses off schedule (10th in Passing Down Rates). They’re prone to big plays though, especially in the ground game. That’s not necessarily something the Aggies have been able to do much of this season, but the passing game has shown to be more of a vertical threat than recent years, and while no one has Achane’s homerun ability, Moss is one of the best in the SEC at breaking tackles in the open field, which could be big in this game.

Aggie Defense vs Tennessee Offense

The Volunteer offense has taken a slight step back following last year’s incredible run by Henry Hooker and a host of talented wide receivers, most of whom are gone now. They still have a really solid run game though, with Jaylen Wright (7.33 yds/rush, .14 EPA/Rush, 49% Success Rate) and Jabari Small (6.29 yds/rush, .21 EPA/Rush, 43% Success Rate) splitting most of the carries. The Vols will be without one of their most explosive playmakers in Bru Mccoy, and while Milton has all the arm strength in the world, he just hasn’t been able to connect deep often this season. Much like previous SEC opponents, the Volunteers are at their best when they run the ball and avoid Passing Down situations, but if they get off schedule, they have a hard time digging themselves out of the hole, ranking 79th in Passing Down Success Rate and 79th in Passing Down Explosiveness as well. This Aggie Front 7 has proven they can contain good rushing attacks, but the secondary being susceptible to big plays is still concerning even against an offense that isn’t able to exploit the weakness as well as teams like Miami and Alabama did.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

The Aggies have won both of the matchups against Tennessee since joining the SEC, a 2016 OT thriller in College Station and a beat down in 2020 in Knoxville. On the flip side of that, the Aggies haven’t won a true road game since Calzada beat Missouri in 2021 and Volunteers have one of the longest home win streaks in the country. As I mentioned, this is a big game for both teams to keep their seasons somewhat on track.

What’s the Verdict?

This is not an easy matchup, even before the season started or before Conner’s injury, I would have labeled this game as a toss up. Now it feels much more like 60/40 or worse. How do the Aggies avoid a midseason skid?

On offense, keeping a clean pocket for Max (who has to take care of the ball) will be big if the Aggies want to have as efficient of a passing attack as the Florida Gators did when they beat the Vols at the Swamp in Week 3. Mertz was only knocked down once the whole game and was 19/24 in that win. The other big need is to fix the Red Zone issues that have plagued the Aggies for three games straight. In SEC play, the Aggies have turned in Red Zone Success Rates of 25%, 31%, and 24%. It didn’t cost them a win in the first two, but it’s a big reason they couldn’t secure a win against Alabama last week.

On defense, I think the Front 7 can do a good job of locking down the Vols rushing attack, but tackling will be huge this week. Wright is 4th in the SEC in Yards After Contact (Averaging 4.02). If the Aggies can knock Tennessee off schedule and force them into Passing Down situations, and if Durkin can find a way to help out his corners and prevent the explosive plays that have kept them on the field on third down all season, I think this Volunteer offense will really struggle to move the ball.

My Prediction: I think the Aggies matchup fairly well here but I think this is a tough road spot for a team that desperately needs to get to their bye week and regroup. I’ll say Vols win 24-20, with the Aggies inability to finish drives costing them vital points on the road.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for reading along, check out these sites below if you’re interested in more CFB stats.

  • for Brian Fremeau’s FEI data and other fun projects from him.
  • is the home for all of Bill Connelly’s SP+ info (as well as the FPI rankings). You’ll need to subscribe to ESPN+ for most of his stuff these days.
  • is a great site for data and charts that you can download and play with on your own time, in case Fun With Numbers isn’t filling that statistical void in your life. Most of my data comes from here.
  • SEC Stat Cat is another great site. Solid blend of statistics and football concepts.

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em.