Look, all this fretting about Florida and LSU? We’re 5-0, did this to Florida, and are about to play in our first Top 10 match-up in 11 years. This is not the week to be consumed with Florida needing to lose another game. Do not be afraid. Let’s keep winning.
To do that, Tennessee will need its most consistent performance of the year. A few thoughts on that:
Don’t Give Away Our Biggest Advantage
On the road in the SEC as an underdog, the Vols will need to be better in some new and exciting ways, but also must continue to be strong in all the ways we assume. That starts with special teams work for the Vols, something that really failed them the last time we did this Top-10-on-the-road thing in Tuscaloosa: two disappointing punts, three missed field goals, and nothing in the return game thanks to great special teams work by the Crimson Tide.
Tennessee needs its field position advantage to remain consistent in this game. That means Evan Berry, Alvin Kamara, Trevor Daniel, and Tennessee’s kick coverage teams continue to do their jobs exceptionally well. I don’t think this will turn into the sort of 19-14 slugfest we saw against Alabama last year, where kicking and making field goals became one of the stories of the day, but obviously we need Aaron Medley to be sharp. He’s only attempted two kicks in the last three weeks, one the rushed, failed deep kick against Ohio.
Limiting Texas A&M’s Big Plays
Tennessee has given up only 16 plays of 20+ yards this year, 10th best nationally among teams who have played five games and tied with Alabama and South Carolina for best in the SEC. As we noted earlier in the week, a dozen of those 16 plays have come in the first half while the Vols were getting off to slow starts.
Meanwhile the Aggie offense has landed 30 plays of 20+ yards in five games, 21st in the nation. What’s noteworthy here is that 14 of those 30 plays have come on the ground (by comparison, Tennessee has 23 plays of 20+ yards this year and only six of them are runs). Trayveon Williams averages nine yards per carry because he has six 20+ yard runs and three 40+ yard runs, an impressive start for the 5’9” freshman. Trevor Knight has added four more 20+ yard runs, which is as many as Josh Dobbs has.
The Vols have given up only three 20+ yard runs all year and only one since the end of the first quarter of the Battle at Bristol. So far the absence of both starting linebackers hasn’t hurt here against Florida’s committee or Georgia without Nick Chubb; Sony Michel had the one 20+ yard run with 22 last week.
A&M has used these runs to put games away late: 89 yards from Williams with seven minutes to go to stretch the lead to 19 against Auburn, four 20+ yard runs from Williams and Knight in the fourth quarter of the Arkansas game immediately following a 92-yard touchdown pass. This team knows how to play with the lead, knows how to keep scoring points, and like the Vols are an offense where you have to account for everything. Bob Shoop’s defense will need to show up early and stay late.
Be Lucky and Good
I am weary of the conversation about fumble luck and Tennessee. Have the Vols been fortunate to recover 19 of 25 balls on the ground this year? Probably. Does it tell much of the story of this team? Nope.
The Vols continue to be haunted by a demon of their own design: playing so poorly on opening night against Appalachian State with the entire college football world watching, the outcome most impacted by Tennessee recovering fumbles creating a narrative that has carried forward with apparently less of the college football world paying attention...even though the Vols are getting ready to be the first team to ever play the 3:30 CBS game four weeks in a row. The Vols won against App State in overtime thanks to Jalen Hurd diving on a Josh Dobbs fumble in the end zone, took the second biggest drop in the history of the AP poll after victory, and had to go 4-0 just to get back to their preseason #9 ranking.
Which is exactly what they’ve done. Virginia Tech fumbled five times, but Tennessee’s subsequent 45-3 run can’t just be chalked up to balls on the ground. Tennessee’s 38-0 run on Florida is one of the most dominating stretches of football for any team against a quality opponent this season and far beyond, and it came with zero fumbles and only one Gator turnover. The Vols were unlucky to have Jalen Hurd fumble walking into the end zone and Georgia recover their own on the other end of the field to go down 17-0, then still hit the Dawgs with a 28-7 run. Was Tennessee fortunate to hit a hail mary? You bet! Only a little more so than Georgia on the previous snap!
You know what else is mostly (bad) luck? Injuries. And I challenge you to find a team that has lost more of the players it could least afford than Tennessee: Cam Sutton and possibly Jalen Reeves-Maybin out for the year, Darrin Kirkland out since Bristol. And the Vols beat Florida and Georgia without all three. No Chance Hall and Coleman Thomas on a bum ankle the first three weeks, and the Vols looked like they’d never block again. And no Jalen Hurd for the last 1.5 quarters last week and now probably at least this week.
And Tennessee is 5-0 with wins over two ranked teams and a third that’s currently ranked. Not by the skin of their lucky teeth every week, but by long stretches of football where they flat out dominate on both sides of the ball. That’s the story.
Tennessee has been lucky to recover a higher percentage of fumbles and very, very unlucky to have lost so many key players to injury. But the Vols are 5-0 because they’re a really good football team who made a bigger miracle than they allowed on the previous play last week. If Tennessee loses to Texas A&M, it will probably be because Texas A&M is also a really good football team, not because Tennessee’s “luck” ran out.
And if Tennessee is going to beat Texas A&M, it will need that really good football team to show up at kickoff.