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Vols Trending Report: Texas A&M

The Vols have no lack of heart or offensive firepower, but the twin bugaboos of ball security and red zone defense keep cropping up.

Note to self: keep giving this guy the ball.
Note to self: keep giving this guy the ball.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The string of wild second halves marches on, but the Tennessee winning streak has come to a halt, after a 28-7 run to close regulation wasn't enough for the Vols in College Station against Texas A&M. Tennessee's 45-38 double overtime loss drops the Vols to 5-1 on the season, but despite the result, there are positives to take from the encounter. So what's looking better and what's looking worse after the showdown with the Aggies? To the trends!


  • Alvin Kamara: Feature Back. There has been some chatter in the weekly Monday Mathematical and its comments about Kamara being a better fit for the Tennessee offense than battering ram Jalen Hurd. Saturday, Kamara finally got his shot, and he didn't disappoint. He ran for 127 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns and added another 161 yards and another touchdown receiving. The Vols put up 675 yards in regulation, their highest output since a 2012 shootout against Troy, and Kamara led the charge. The Vols have had to play a lot of backups this season, but this weekend was the first time they've had one play like he'd had designs on a permanent starting role.
  • John Kelly's turn. Coming into the Texas A&M game, just one Tennessee back had averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry on 5+ carries in any game this season (Kamara against Ohio). But Kamara wasn't the only one who broke through on Saturday. While he was a part of a pair of fumbles, Kelly looked the part in his first extended action. He consistently got tough yards up the middle, running for 89 yards on 13 carries (6.8 yards per carry) and adding one 12-yard reception to eclipse 100 all-purpose yards. With Kamara and Hurd as the one-two punch, it can be hard for a third back to get time. But Kelly's performance against the Aggies proved that Tennessee has talent beyond the top two.
  • Big comebacks and wild finishes. Recovering a fumble in the end zone for the winning touchdown against Appalachian State was something. And then came a 45-3 run against Virginia Tech (who seems pretty good these days) and a 38-0 run against Florida. And then the last twenty seconds of the Georgia game just topped pretty much everything. But the A&M game brought even more insanity. A three-touchdown deficit in the third quarter was erased. A two-touchdown deficit with under three minutes to go was too, with the help of Malik Foreman forcing a fumble out the back of the end zone at a time when A&M taking a knee likely would've ended the game. Every week, Tennessee seems to start from farther and farther back, and yet every week, they come back to make a game of it. If there's once thing that can't be criticized about the 2016 Vols, it's their resilience.
  • Hindsight. When Alvin Kamara crossed the goal line with 41 seconds left to cut the A&M lead to 35-34, kicking the extra point made sense. The Vols had been moving the ball at will, and frittering away a three touchdown second half lead must have been demoralizing to the Aggies. Tennessee had to like their shot in overtime. But after seeing the result, it's easy to remember that Kamara was unstoppable in the fourth quarter and that the Vols defense, down to their third and fourth-stringers, was completely helpless against the A&M attack. Putting the whole game on one offensive play from a yard away starts looking a lot more appealing after the fact.
  • Hometown clock operators. On three separate occasions in the fourth quarter, the timekeeper ran 5-10 additional seconds off the clock after it should've been stopped. Only once, with the help of Butch Jones, did the referees notice. It didn't ultimately affect the outcome, but if Tennessee's comeback had been about 50 seconds slower, the inability to keep time would've been one of the biggest stories coming out of the Tennessee camp.
  • Taking care of the ball. Tennessee led the nation in fumbles in the first five weeks, but they outdid themselves on Saturday, putting the ball on the ground a whopping six(!) times and losing five of them. Add in two interceptions (one of which might as well have been a fumble), and the Vols managed to set a dubious record, turning the ball over seven times for the first time in school history. Throw in 12 penalties for 84 yards, and you have the perfect picture of an extremely talented team that just can't seem to get the little details right. Fumbles and penalties have been a problem all season, but never has it been as bad as this weekend. And if Tennessee wants to have a shot against Alabama, it has to change now.
  • Red zone defense. For a defense that has had stretches of solid, perhaps even dominant play, Tennessee's inability to stop opponents in the red zone is baffling. Throwing out an end of game possession in which A&M didn't even try to score a touchdown, the Vols have now given up touchdowns on 12 of their opponents' last 14 red zone possessions, a touchdown rate of 85.7%. Looking only at regulation stats, the numbers are even worse, with Tennessee giving up touchdowns on 11 of their opponents' last 12 red zone possession (91.7%). To put that in perspective, Bowling Green is currently last in the country, allowing touchdowns on 84.0% of their opponents' red zone possessions, and there are 55 teams that haven't given up more than 11 red zone touchdowns all season. And this isn't a new problem--Tennessee was 110th in red zone defense in 2014 and hasn't been in the top 20 in this stat since Kiffin's tenure. While fumbles were Tennessee's most obvious problem against Texas A&M, they were really only one part of the Vols' twin bugaboos this season. It's hard to say whether it's mental or schematic, but once an opponent gets inside the 20, their seems to be little resistance the rest of the way. Change that, and we might be talking about turning the ball over six times and winning anyways.
  • The hole in the 2014 recruiting class. Butch Jones knew when he got to Tennessee that the Vols would be hurting for linebackers after A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt graduated. With only one (Jalen Reeves-Maybin) coming in the 2013 class, he searched high and low for reinforcements in his first full recruiting class, signing six linebackers (five straight from high school) in 2014, despite running a base nickel defense. That 2014 recruiting class is this year's junior class, and those five linebackers (three four-star recruits and two three-stars) have been notably absent. Just one of the five made the preseason two-deep, with Cortez McDowell winning the job as co-second-string OLB. Now, with one senior and two sophomores out with injury, Tennessee is relying on the 2014 class (plus walk-on Colton Jumper) to be the entirety of their depth chart, and the results haven't been pretty, with Texas A&M racking up 353 yards on the ground (338 in regulation) in their 45-38 win. Much like going a year without recruiting an offensive lineman, going 0/5 in one position group in one recruiting class is bound to catch up with you a couple years down the road. In 2016, 2014's misses at linebacker have caught up with the Vols.
  • Josh Dobbs, in overtime. When trailing in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, it's hard to find anybody better. Dobbs threw the perfect Hail Mary against Georgialed a go-ahead drive against Alabama, and has erased two-touchdown deficits in the last three minutes not oncebut twice. But in overtime, Dobbs has been a liability. Dobbs has played in six overtime periods (in four games) during his Tennessee career. His stats? 4/9 passing, 25 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs. On the ground, he's carried the ball 4 times for 12 yards, 0 TDs, 1 fumble. With those kind of numbers, it's astounding that Tennessee managed two wins in those four games.
  • Margin for error. If Tennessee seriously wants to entertain hopes of a playoff berth, they needed to split their back-to-back top ten SEC West contests against Texas A&M and Alabama. And while they put up a valiant fight in College Station, falling short means the Alabama game is a must-win if Tennessee has designs that look beyond the SEC.
  • Derek Barnett, one-man wrecking crew. Six tackles, one sack, two hurries. He even broke up two passes, one 15-yards downfield. One place where Tennessee doesn't lack for talented depth is on the defensive line, and even with four five-stars (depending on the recruiting service) in the two-deep, Barnett still sticks out like a sore thumb hovering over the "wreak destruction upon opposing offenses" button.