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Key Matchup: Can Tennessee handle the Texas A&M defensive front?

This is the matchup that will determine a winner.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Texas A&M Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not exactly a secret — this Tennessee offense is far from the 2022 version. The Volunteers have struggled through the air to this point, as Joe Milton and the wide receivers just can’t really seem to get it going down the field. Making matters worse is the loss of Bru McCoy for the season.

So far in 2023, Tennessee has leaned heavily on the ground game. Jabari Small, Dylan Sampson and Jaylen Wright have been a three-headed monster on the ground, somewhat masking some deficiencies in the passing game. Can you do that against everyone though? That’s going to be put to the test this week against Texas A&M.

Jimbo Fisher has filled up his defensive line with blue-chip players, and the results are starting to show. The Aggies are top ten in the country in rushing yards allowed, thanks to three former top 100 prospects atop the depth chart. You know at least one of them — Walter Nolen — who chose Texas A&M over the hometown Volunteers.

“They are good at stopping the run,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “They are good at getting after the quarterback, too. First of all, they have really good skill, and when I say that, I am talking about their big skill up front, too. They are physical, they are dynamic, they are thick, they play strong, they are multiple up front. They have created a bunch of negative yardage plays in the run game, and that has given them the ability to go get after the quarterback, (creating) second-and-long, third-and-long, too.”

It’s an interesting matchup here, with both defenses looking like mirror images of one another.

Texas A&M (2) checks in just behind Tennessee (1) in team sacks per game at 4.33. Tennessee (3) comes in just behind Texas A&M (2) with 9.4 tackles for loss. Both teams flatout get after the quarterback and make plenty of plays in the backfield.

“I think it’s four-straight weeks of five-plus sacks,” Heupel said of Texas A&M. “They’ve gotten after the quarterback. They do that through scheme and pressure, but a lot of it is just with their front four. They do it not just on third downs, they do it on normal downs, too. Those guys are physically gifted. They’re big, strong, physical but they’re extremely athletic. They bend well, they use their hands well. I think it’s really important in this one that you protect the quarterback extremely well. Give him a chance to get the ball out.”

Tennessee goes fast, which certainly helps to slow down pass rush. They’ll also utilize a quick passing attack, simplifying things for Milton and getting the ball out to playmakers on the perimeter. Expect to see a bunch of that on Saturday afternoon.

Keeping that offensive rhythm going and making positive plays on first down will be another key to watch for.

“You watch the games and it’s a lot of second-and-longs, third-and-longs and those are situations you don’t want to be in against this front,” Heupel said. “You’ve got to protect it well but you’ve also got to strike some balance and have some effectiveness in the run game, which is extremely difficult. These guys defend the run extremely well.”

So Tennessee’s 7th ranked rushing offense will be put to the test in a big, big way on Saturday afternoon. It’s going to be interesting to see the Aggies massive front go up against a non-traditional attack, too. Tennessee’s tempo and wide splits could nullify some of that five-star ability up front. They’ll certainly have to be better than they were against Florida in this category, where they ran for just 100 yards on 30 carries. Having Cooper Mays, who missed the game against Florida, back out on the field should help, however.

Texas A&M’s first loss of the season came to Miami, where the Hurricanes ran for just 74 yards. Tyler Van Dyke threw for 374 yards and five touchdowns, however. The Aggies’ second loss came to Alabama, which ran for just 23 yards. Jalen Milroe threw for 321 and three touchdowns though. It definitely feels like Tennessee is going to need a pretty good performance out of Joe Milton to come away with a win here.

Tennessee remains a three point favorite in this one, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.