There is no doubt that College Station was buzzing on Saturday, when Texas A&M held off Tennessee in a 45-38 double-overtime victory. Excitement was certainly warranted; the Aggies had just downed the No. 9 team in the country, and in doing so, improved to 6-0 for the first time since 1994.
On Sunday, though, a sobering reality should set in.
For every bit of optimism spurred by what could be a turning point in this program’s history, doubt emerges from a troubling near-collapse in which the team displayed a blatant inability to close out an opponent that seemed intent on handing them a victory.
Leading 21-7 on the opening drive of the second half, defensive end Daeshon Hall recovered a fumble with the Volunteers driving into Texas A&M territory, one of seven turnovers forced by the defense on the day. The fumble recovery set up a Trayveon Williams rushing touchdown that gave the Aggies a 21-point lead with just over 25 minutes of play remaining — marking the first of several moments where they had an opportunity to put away the Volunteers, and failed to do so.
Tennessee would drive 82 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing possession, and suddenly, a victory seemed far less certain. The Volunteers proceeded to commit turnovers on back-to-back drives, though, teeing up another opportunity for the Aggies to slam the door.
And once again, they could not.
Texas A&M’s response to Tennessee’s gift-wrapped victory was to throw an interception, then punt on each the following two possessions, allowing the Volunteers closed the gap to a single score. Quarterback Trevor Knight opened the lead back up to 14 with a 62-yard touchdown scamper, and sure enough, Tennessee drove down the field with ease for another seven points.
Then came the crown jewel of this near-collapse.
Williams broke away for an all-but-certain 73-yard touchdown run with the Aggies up by seven in the final two minutes. All they needed was for Williams to finish the play, or fall down in-bounds, and the game would be over. Instead, Williams slowed down just enough before hitting the goal line to allow Tennessee to pop a fumble out of the end zone, setting up an overtime-forcing touchdown.
In a season filled with ugly wins, it only makes sense that Texas A&M somehow found a way to escape victorious.
For all of these shortcomings, head coach Kevin Sumlin believes he learned something important about his team on Saturday.
“The big takeaway from this was we were able to withstand some things, not play great but make enough plays to win the game without some of our better players being 100 percent,” Sumlin said following the game.
Sumlin’s comments illustrate a worthy point. Injuries had taken a toll on the Aggies throughout the week, including defensive end Myles Garrett. Widely regarded as one of the most dominant defensive players in college football, Garrett made his impact felt despite playing well below full-strength after suffering a leg injury against Arkansas. The team’s ability to defeat a top-10 opponent despite this adversity deserves recognition.
But upon taking a glance at Tennessee’s injury report, any excuses, and silver linings, begin to disintegrate.
The Volunteers were missing four defensive starters on Saturday. Among those sidelined with injuries were outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton, two of the best players in the country at their respective positions. Tennessee was also without starting running back Jalen Hurd.
As Texas A&M gears up for a showdown on the road at top-ranked Alabama — easily the biggest game in recent program history — excuses, silver linings and frankly, a performance similar to Saturday will not be enough.
The Aggies must figure out how to finish an opponent before they head to Tuscaloosa two Saturdays from now. If not, they will become the latest in a long line of victims to get steamrolled by the defending national champions.