Texas A&M (7-1) remains just outside the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 5 in the AP Poll for the sixth consecutive week despite the cancellation of last week’s matchup against Ole Miss due to COVID-19 concerns. This week, A&M will face Tennessee (3-6) for the first time since an overtime victory at Kyle Field in 2016. The Aggies are on a six-game win streak while the Volunteers ended a six-game losing streak with a 42-17 victory over a winless Vanderbilt team last week. Here are five things to watch for as A&M travels to Knoxville for it’s final regular-season game against the unranked Volunteers at 11 a.m. at Neyland stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19:
1. Quarterback carousel
Tennessee’s starting quarterback, senior Jarrett Guarantano, left the Volunteers’ game with a head injury against Arkansas on Nov. 7 and did not return. The veteran signal caller recorded 1,112 passing yards prior to the injury but has since been replaced by a variety of back-up players. In its most recent game, freshman Harrison Bailey and sophomore J.T. Shrout shared the job as the Volunteers’ offensive leaders. Bailey threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns with an additional 90 yards and two touchdowns recorded by Shrout. While Guarantano presumably remains unavailable on Saturday, A&M will have an advantage in Tennessee’s inconsistent and inexperienced quarterbacks, although the pair should not be underestimated.
2. Reliance on running backs
Tennessee running back Eric Gray has garnered four rushing touchdowns this season, in addition to another four by running back Ty Chandler. Together, the pair have accumulated 1,197 yards on the ground. This effective running back unit, led by Gray who averages 85.8 yards per game, is coached by former A&M running backs coach, Jay Graham. With extensive experience at the professional level, as well as many years spent coaching, Graham is producing productive playmakers at his alma mater of Tennessee. Although the maroon and white’s run defense is ranked ninth nationally and generally is successful at containing its opponents’ run game, Saturday will be another important test for the Aggies.
3. Record within reach
A&M has a running back weapon of its own in sophomore Isaiah Spiller, ranked 12th nationally in rushing yards with 897 in eight games. Only 103 yards short of 1,000 this season, Spiller could potentially attain that milestone in Saturday's game, as he averages 112 rushing yards per game. The task will not be easy against Tennessee’s rush defense, ranked 34th nationally, but is not impossible for the young Aggie that routinely runs hard and exhibits toughness, effort and grit — three of the football program’s core values. Spiller has contributed six of A&M’s 13 rushing touchdowns this season and likely will add a few more in the team’s final regular season game this week. A win over Tennessee would propel the maroon and white to an overall record of 8-1 and keep A&M’s playoff hopes alive.
4. Offensive obstacle
Tennessee sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o has emerged as a destructive member of the Volunteers’ defense that is ranked 56th in the NCAA. The veteran defensive player leads the team with 63 tackles and is tied for second in the SEC in tackles for loss with 9.5. To’o To’o and other Tennessee defenders will have hefty responsibilities this week as they attempt to contain running back Isaiah Spiller, as well as Ainias Smith and Devon Achane, potentially. These are large assignments in that Spiller averages 5.9 yards per carry and A&M averages 201.3 rushing yards per game, the second-highest in the SEC. In order to upset A&M, the 14-point favorite, the Volunteers will have to orchestrate a remedy to shut down the Aggies’ mobility on the ground that is utilized so heavily and relied on so strongly.
5. Convincing conclusion
Serving as the finale for A&M and Tennessee’s regular season, Saturday’s game has a lot riding on it for the Aggies. The maroon and white have improved in nearly every phase of the game this season and therefore, are receiving national attention. A win over the Volunteers could potentially solidify A&M as worthy of an invitation to this year’s College Football Playoffs. The Aggies need to have a stellar performance in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. As A&M coach Jimbo Fisher often preaches, mentality is critical in preparation and no SEC opponent can be underestimated. While A&M is capable of beating Tennessee this weekend, the team cannot afford to lose momentum or motivation, as the execution of Saturday’s game plan could define the Aggies’ postseason fate.