One thing that has remained a constant throughout Kevin Sumlin’s head coaching career is an affinity for high-powered, pass-heavy offensive attacks.
Ironically, as Texas A&M tries to capitalize on its most promising start under Sumlin, the passing game is the one area that could haunt the Aggies.
Texas A&M welcomes Tennessee to Kyle Field this Saturday for a top-10 showdown that will shape both sides of the race to the SEC Championship Game. The Aggies enter the game at No. 8 in the country and are alone with Alabama as the only undefeated teams remaining in the SEC West. The ninth-ranked Volunteers stand as the lone unbeaten in the East following a last-second victory over Georgia.
Although both teams enter the contest with perfect 5-0 records, their performances in 2016 have hardly been flawless.
Tennessee has displayed a tendency to not wake up until the second halves of games, something Texas A&M has an opportunity to capitalize on. The Aggies have not been electric out of the gates either, though, failing to put away lowly South Carolina until the waning moments last week. Even in their best showing of the year, a 21-point blowout of Arkansas two weeks ago, they did not take their first lead until the 1:33 mark of the third quarter.
If either team can build a significant lead early on, it will possess the defensive talent to stave off a comeback attempt. Texas A&M has the firepower to do so, but the season-long uncertainty regarding what Trevor Knight will provide under center casts doubt over this actually happening.
Knight has looked impressive at times this year. Most notable was the victory over Arkansas, in which he passed for 225 yards and two touchdowns while adding another 157 yards and two scores on the ground. In those moments, Knight looks the part of a quarterback capable of leading the Aggies to their first-ever SEC title.
Outings such as last week against South Carolina generate concern. The Gamecocks forced Knight into a forgettable passing performance, completing 23-of-40 passes for 206 yards, one interception and zero touchdowns.
As he has all season long, Knight made plays when allotted time to sit comfortably in the pocket. He also continued to impose his running ability on opponents, rushing for 84 yards and a touchdown.
Against a Tennessee defense stacked with NFL prospects, though, the Aggies and Knight will face an uphill battle.
Matchup to watch: The Texas A&M offensive line vs. Derek Barnett
The Volunteers have been hit with some unfortunate news on the injury front. Outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin will miss this weekend’s game while recovering from a shoulder injury. Without two of the team’s biggest playmakers in Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton, who is out for the third consecutive game with a fractured ankle, even more pressure will be placed on defensive end Derek Barnett to produce.
Barnett has been a monster in the trenches this season, and especially of late — he has recorded 10 tackles, four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in the last two games alone. If the Aggies’ offensive line is unable to keep Barnett away from Trevor Knight, the Texas A&M passing attack will never get off the ground.
Texas A&M has a chance to expose a Tennessee defense that will be without two of its best three players. The loss of Reeves-Maybin in particular could be vital, since freshman running back Trayveon Williams has already established himself as a big-play threat on the edge, complementing his quarterback’s dual-threat abilities.
Down the stretch of almost every game this season, though, the Volunteers have looked unstoppable. Their defense is as deep and talented as any in the country, and it eventually turns momentum in their favor. If Joshua Dobbs or Jalen Hurd find a rhythm offensively, the Aggies will need a near-perfect performance to pull off a victory.
Final Score: Tennessee 31, Texas A&M 28