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KNOW THINE ENEMY: Checking in with the Vols

Let’s do a gameday Q&A

South Carolina v Tennessee Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

We reached out our Tennessee Vol friends to see how they were feeling about this game. Let’s see what they had to say.

This game marks the halfway point in the season, how are Vol fans feeling about the results so far? Obviously the Florida game stung, but seems like y’all still have a lot to play for.

Sort of a mixed bag, honestly. This team is good, not great, and I think most fans would tell you that. It’s tough coming off of the 2022 season, which truly was special. Unfortunately, the loss of Hendon Hooker has turned out to mean more than we had all hoped, and that downfield magic just hasn’t been there with him and Jalin Hyatt in the lineup.

Tennessee is sitting here looking at Texas A&M, at Alabama, at Kentucky, at Missouri and Georgia left on the schedule. 3-2 through that stretch would be a win, in anyone’s opinion.

2023 just seems like a bit of a bridge year, with former No. 1 overall player Nico Iamaleava ready to take over next fall.

There were a lot of differing opinions on Joe Milton going into this year. How has he fared thus far, and what does the offense as a whole look like compared to the high-flying affair we saw in 2022?

Disappointing. Milton has every physical trait you could ask for, but the downfield passing attack just hasn’t been there so far this year. Hooker made things look so easy — and frankly Milton did too in his limited chances — but that hasn’t been the case in 2023. It’s not totally on Milton either, the wide receivers have been a disappointment to this point as well.

Tennessee is rolling with a quicker passing game. A lot of quick perimeter screens, quick hitches, easy reads for Milton to get the ball out of his hands. It’s just not really what we thought we’d see, considering Milton’s arm.

Tennessee’s rushing attack has been the bread and butter to this point, ranking 7th overall in the FBS. Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson all are getting equal touches, each bringing something a little different to the table. That rushing attack against A&M’s defensive line will determine the outcome of this one, in my opinion.

Defensively Tennessee looks to be pretty balanced. What would you say are the biggest strength and biggest weakness of that unit?

SEC veteran coach Rodney Garner is in year three in Knoxville and this defensive line is really showing it. Multiple guys have developed into big time players, none bigger than sophomore edge rusher James Pearce. The 6-5, 242 pound defensive end has exploded onto the scene with five sacks on the year, coming up with nine pressures by himself two weeks ago against South Carolina. Tennessee can absolutely win up front on the defensive line, which was the big difference against the Gamecocks.

The weakness here is probably depth at linebacker, thanks to a key injury of Keenan Pili in week one. Tennessee will roll out two freshman linebackers on Saturday — Arion Carter and Jeremiah Telander — in rotation behind senior stud Aaron Beasley. Tennessee really struggled with tackling in space against Florida, giving up a couple of big runs that changed the game. That’s something to watch for on Saturday afternoon.

There are a good number of Aggies making the trip to Knoxville for the game this Saturday. Any must-do recommendations on game weekend?

Calhoun’s on the river is always a favorite of mine — go on Friday if you’re trying to eat though. Otherwise, going down there just to take in the scenes of the Vol Navy on gameday is worth the trip.

Gus’s Good Times Deli is a staple of Knoxville and a favorite of locals, if you’re looking for the on campus experience. Peyton Manning’s ’Saloon 16’ is a cool spot too if you want to brave the crowds.

Get in the stadium when the gates open and take the ramp up a few levels facing campus. This way you can take in the band’s entrance and get a full experience of the pageantry of gameday. It’s a pretty awesome scene to watch them enter.

As great as it is to play on CBS, I know A&M fans always lament not getting a night game environment for a big game. Do you think the atmosphere at Neyland differs much from day to night?

It absolutely does. I took my son to his first game a couple of weeks ago against South Carolina, banking on it being a rowdy environment. We weren’t disappointed, especially after South Carolina pretty much ended our season a year ago. Neyland at night, now complete with the LED lights high atop the boxes, is just something you’ve got to experience. Of course, the extra 3/4 hours to … uhm… tailgate… certainly helps.

Luckily for you guys, with it being a little bit later in the year, you might see a little bit of that environment in the fourth quarter.

I’ll admit that I still have PTSD from hearing Rocky Top what seemed to be no less than 50 times at the 2005 Cotton Bowl. I know it’s your school song, but this is a safe space. Do you ever get a bit tired of it?

No, absolutely not. Honestly, I feel like the Pride of the Southland does a nice job of not wearing it out and mixing things up throughout the game.

However, if you get your doors blown off like A&M did back in 2005, I can understand the hatred.

Alright, prediction time. Give me a final score, and tell me how you see this game playing out.

Oh, man. This is a tough one. I think Knoxville means something, first off. The environment will be wild, and the Aggies will have to handle the noise. I’ve been trying to figure out what A&M is all week… is it the team that got blown away at Miami? Or is it the team that handled business against Auburn, Arkansas and hung right with Alabama? It’s tough to project what they’ll be as they hit the road again.

I think this is a pretty even matchup, honestly strength on strength with Tennessee’s rushing attack and Texas A&M’s defensive line. The wide splits and offensive pace of the Volunteers might be the difference though.

In the end, I think Tennessee makes a play late to get it done. Give me the Volunteers to win, 27-24.