No. 5 Texas A&M now has seven consecutive SEC wins and six straight double-digit wins under its belt after controlling the game against Tennessee on Saturday.
In what was a rough start in Knoxville after Tennessee scored on the opening drive, the Aggies responded with a shutout in the second half complemented by smothering defensive play. Additionally, senior quarterback Kellen Mond played one of the best games of his career with 281 passing yards and 81 percent completion.
With the Aggies in serious contention for one of the four playoff spots, A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said A&M has earned its spot with its performance this week in addition to the rest of the season.
“This team truly played a total team game,” Fisher said. “[A&M is] one of the most selfless football teams I’ve ever been around… We gave up a couple big plays but we adjusted to that. You’re 8-1 in the SEC. I want to see somebody else go 8-1 in this league.”
The Aggies quickly fired back to answer Tennessee’s first quarter touchdown with one of their own via a Mond scramble into the endzone. This was Mond’s third rushing touchdown of the season, giving him 20 in his career.
At this point, A&M set the precedent for what has been its gameplan all season: control the time of possession. A&M held the ball for 44 minutes and called 79 plays compared to Tennessee’s 16 minutes and 37 plays.
“Time of possession is very important, but also if you're scoring points with time of possession,” Fisher said. “When you're getting possession and you're scoring points, then you really make a difference and that's how we’re playing. Converting on third down, scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and then we are helping our defense that way.”
With A&M up 17-7, Tennessee sophomore quarterback J.T. Shrout connected with sophomore wide receiver Cedric Tillman for a spectacular diving touchdown grab on a deep pass. Tillman, who had only had one reception prior this season, was guarded by junior defensive back Brian George, who stepped in to replace an injured senior defensive back Myles Jones.
George had struggles with pass coverage throughout the first half in his first collegiate start, but he turned this around in the second half, even snagging an interception to conclude the game.
“Brian George is going to be an outstanding player,” Fisher said. “He just hasn't played as much. You get anxious… It's your first time out there… you're trying to close out a season, have a chance for the playoffs. It's a lot of pressure for a young man. He did a good job of really adjusting in the second half.”
Helping to move the chains for the Aggies, who converted 10 of 14 third down tries, was sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller who has been efficient for A&M all year. After his 89 yards rushing on Saturday, Spiller is only 14 yards shy of reaching 1,000 rushing yards in only nine games. Spiller also had six receptions for 60 yards on the day.
“[Spiller] is a workhorse,” Fisher said. “Catching the football out of the backfield, he's a complete back, and for him to then turn around and go play fullback for us, that helps us in a lot of areas… Spiller is a huge key component for us.”
A&M has the second-best third down conversion percentage in the country for teams with more than four games, and a key to that metric has been an offensive line that has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the country for teams with more than six games.
While allowing no sacks on the day, the offensive line also enabled A&M to rush for 216 yards between Mond, Spiller and sophomore Ainias Smith. When it comes to time of possession, the ground game has been the key for the Aggies.
“I think, not only in the past game, but the way that they’re [the offensive line] working in unison, and the run game has been such a big reason why we’re able to gash teams in certain ways,” Mond said. “I think Coach Fisher does a really good job of mixing up a bunch of the schemes we do to keep the defense off balance. The offensive line has been tremendous all year and we’re not done yet.”
Midway through the third quarter, a miscommunication between Mond and the receivers caused an interception in the red zone that gave Tennessee possession at its 45-yard line. A&M’s defense responded by forcing its second three-and-out of the day.
A&M then fired back with a 13-play, 88-yard drive for Smith’s second touchdown of the day and his first on the ground. Smith finishes the regular season with nine total touchdowns and six receiving touchdowns, tying sophomore Jaylen Wydermyer for the most on the team.
“Even after that interception, the ability to keep that poise and keep everybody together and continue to fight,” Mond said. “You got to have the right people around you and other people were able to make plays.”
Mond finishes the regular season with over 2,000 passing yards and 19 passing touchdowns, as well as a handful of school records. Now eying the College Football Playoffs, Mond and the Aggies finish the season 8-1, with the eight wins good for the most SEC wins the Aggies have ever achieved in a season.
“Seven straight SEC wins,” Fisher said. “Some schools ain’t even playing seven games. If you want to pick the best four teams we’re one of them.”