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Front Page - Friday, October 7, 2016

Now, let’s see how Tennessee plays as underdog

Link on UT

Dave Link, Knoxville based journalist covering UT sports

You almost can feel Tennessee is a football team of destiny as the most difficult games of the schedule loom Saturday at Texas A&M and Oct. 15 against Alabama at Neyland Stadium.

There aren’t many successful Hail Mary passes, but the Vols got one last Saturday and beat Georgia 34-31 in Athens. Tennessee trailed Georgia 17-0 in the first half.

And two weeks ago the Vols trailed Florida 21-0 in the first half at Neyland Stadium and scored 38 unanswered points on their way to a 38-28 victory.

Not to mention the Vols coming back double-digit deficits to beat Appalachian State and Virginia Tech in the first two games of the season.

Could this be the year of the Vols?

They take on a new role Saturday as underdogs for the first time this season.

No. 9-ranked Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) was a 6.5-point underdog against No. 8/7-ranked Texas A&M when VegasInsider.com posted its opening lines. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EDT (CBS).

ESPN GameDay will be there, the third time it has been at a Vols game this season. The show was at Bristol prior to the Virginia Tech game and in Knoxville two weeks ago before the Florida game.

Tennessee will be making its first trip ever to Texas A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station, and this will be the teams’ first matchup as SEC opponents. Tennessee won the two previous meetings in bowl games, the last time 38-7 in the Jan. 1, 2005 Cotton Bowl.

“We talked to a lot of people, and they talk about how loud it is (at Kyle Field),” UT coach Butch Jones says. “A lot of people compare it to Neyland Stadium. When you go on the road, you’re responsible for creating your own momentum, and you have to focus on the task at hand and that’s playing on that field and not getting caught up in the clutter and distractions.

“We also know they have a tremendous home-field advantage. It’s about an hour and 10-minute ride to Kyle Field from the hotel [we’re] staying in, so that’s a challenge in and of itself, being on the bus that long and staying hydrated and getting up and stretching and staying in that competitive frame of mind you usually have on the bus ride to the stadium.

“This is going to test our mental fortitude and our mental toughness with going on the road in this type of environment, and also with the qualify of opponent we’re facing as well.”

By kickoff, Jauan Jennings’ 43-yard touchdown catch on Joshua Dobbs’ Hail Mary pass to beat Georgia will be an afterthought, and so will Tennessee’s resounding comeback to snap the 11-game losing streak to Florida.

Like Tennessee, Texas A&M has its goals intact after last Saturday’s 24-13 victory at South Carolina.

While the Vols are in control of the SEC East Division with wins over Georgia and Florida, the Aggies are on track in the West Division with an Oct. 22 game at No. 1 Alabama after playing the Vols. Texas A&M will use its Oct. 15 open date to scout Alabama against the Vols.

Jones and his team are prepared for a difficult two games – starting with Texas A&M.

“We’re in a week-to-week season, probably the greatest challenge we have to date playing a Texas A&M football team that I think defines what a complete football team is,” Jones says, adding he’s a friend of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, but friendships will be put aside for good reason Saturday.

Jones is playing with house money after beating Florida and Georgia. Tennessee can lose to Texas A&M and/or Alabama and should still win the SEC East.

Sumlin needs to win Saturday. 

Entering his fifth season as Texas A&M’s coach, Sumlin was 17-15 in SEC games (now 19-15). The Aggies are 5-0 for the third consecutive season, but went 3-5 down the stretch in both 2014 and last year. Fans expect better when Sumlin is making $5 million a year.

Jones knows the feeling. Like when the Vols trailed Florida by 21 and fans were booing.

And just think if Jennings hadn’t pulled down the Hail Mary last Saturday. We’d be talking about the blown coverage in UT’s secondary that resulted in a 47-yard touchdown pass from Jacob Eason to Riley Ridley for a 31-28 Georgia lead with 10 seconds left.

“You don’t win that football game if you don’t have great character in your football program and you don’t have a culture in place,” Jones explains. 

“I continue to say it: We have something special here. Again, it’s a long football season, and playing in this conference, it’s relentless. 

“You have to be ready to play your best, week in and week out, and that’s a challenge. That’s a challenge of playing in this conference, coaching in this conference, all that, cause everything you do is contested, but our players have the belief. They have the belief in each other.”

Texas A&M will test that belief.

Tennessee can’t tempt fate again by falling behind against the Aggies.

“They’re a great team,” defensive tackle Kendal Vickers says. “The stadium is amazing. Their whole program over the last five, six, seven years has been one of the top programs in the nation, so we know we’ve got to come ready to play. We can’t start out slow like we have been.”

3 match-ups to watch

Shoop vs. Trevor Knight

Texas A&M’s biggest question entering the season was at quarterback, and Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight has been the answer.

UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop must game plan for Knight’s ability to run and pass.

Thanks in large part to Knight, the Aggies lead the SEC in total offense with 521 yards per game.

Knight has thrown for 1,261 yards – third in the SEC – and seven touchdowns with three interceptions. He’s completing 54.1 percent of his passes.

Knight is the Aggies’ second-leading rusher with 392 yards, which ranks ninth in the SEC. He has the team-high six rushing touchdowns and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

Against South Carolina, Knight completed 23 of 40 passes for 206 yards with one interception and no touchdowns, and rushed for 84 yards on 12 carries and scored on a 4-yard run.

“I think Trevor Knight has really, really changed their offense. He’s managing their offense,” Jones pointed out. “He can hurt you with his arm. He can hurt you with his legs.”

Jones and many UT players saw Knight during the 2014 season. In the Vols’ third game, Knight completed 20 of 33 passes for 308 yards with one TD and one interception in the Sooners’ 34-10 victory in Norman, Oklahoma. Knight also scored on a 5-yard run against the Vols.

“We thought he was a very talented quarterback back then,” Jones said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think playing winning football, and a lot of times a quarterback is a byproduct of individuals around him.

“They’ve done a great job in terms of there’s skill everywhere. … I think he has a lot of confidence and I think he has a lot of feel for the offense, but also it’s maturity. 

“You get better when you stay in football programs. You continue to grow and develop. He’s been through a lot. He’s one of the leaders on their football team, and I know Kevin’s really high on him and rightfully so. He can do it all.”

Last season, Baker Mayfield took over as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback and helped the Sooners beat UT 31-24 in Neyland Stadium. Knight played in six games as Mayfield’s backup.

Dobbs vs. Aggies’ Back 7

Dobbs has thrown seven passes in the last two games – and would have had eight if Jalen Hurd hadn’t lost a fumble when he took a blind-sided hit from Georgia’s Deandre Baker near the goal line during the first half.

Dobbs is fifth in the SEC in passing yards (1,035) and his 13 passing touchdowns is tied for second-best in the SEC. Last year, Dobbs threw 15 touchdown passes in 13 games.

“Josh Dobbs is doing a great job with managing our offense, making good decisions, he’s a competitor, and again we’re getting run after the catch,” Jones explains. “He’s being able to make every throw that we ask of him now. Again, we’re going to need more of that moving forward because of all the man coverage that we’re receiving right now.”

Texas A&M is giving up 253.4 passing yards per game – 13th in the SEC – and Dobbs is averaging 207 passing yards per game.

Vols’ O-line vs. A&M pressure

Tennessee has used the same starters on the offensive line for the past two games and likely will go with the same at Texas A&M.

It will be a big challenge for tackles Brett Kendrick and Chance Hall, guards Jashon Robertson and Jack Jones and center Dylan Wiesman.

Senior end Daeshon Hall combines with senior All-American end Myles Garrett to give the Aggies one of the nation’s best pass rushing duos.

“They do have two great defensive ends and they have some great interior defensive tackles, as well,” Jones says. “I think it’s a unit that gives you a lot of issues because of their depth, first of all. They can rotate players in and there’s no drop-off no matter who’s in the game. 

“They’re very, very disruptive and they come off the football. Because of the talent they have up front, they’re able to create a lot of one-on-one matchups.”

Garrett didn’t make the trip for the South Carolina due an injury sustained in the 45-24 victory over Arkansas on Sept. 24. Look for Garrett to be ready Saturday.

The 6-foot-5, 262-pound junior led the SEC in sacks last season with 12.5 (minus-71 yards), tackles for loss with 19.5 (minus-101 yards) and sacks (five).

In four games this year, Garrett has three sacks and five tackles for loss, while the 6-6, 260-pound Hall has the team-high 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks (two vs. South Carolina).

5 things to watch

Vols’ injuries

No surprise here. The Vols have several top players questionable for Texas A&M due to injuries.

Junior tailback Jalen Hurd missed most of the second half at Georgia due to injury, but Jones said he’s expected to be ready for the Aggies. The Hendersonville Beech High graduate had 42 yards on 10 carries and three catches for 50 yards in the first half at Georgia.

UT starting linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. missed the Georgia game with injuries. Jones said both would be evaluated during the week.

“I think (linebacker) Colton Jumper played his best football game (at Georgia),” Jones says. “But we’re very, very limited right now just from a health standpoint at the linebacker position, but we expect our defensive line to make a difference, and they have to and they want to.”

Senior cornerback Cam Sutton is out for the season with a broken bone in his foot.

Junior cornerback Justin Martin was suspended for the Georgia game for violation of team rules but was back at practice Monday. Martin struggled in the victory over Florida and was replaced early in the Georgia week as the starter by freshman Baylen Buchanan.

“Justin Martin will be back (at practice), and if he makes the trip it will be based on his performance on the field this week in practice,” Jones said.

Josh and Jauan

Jennings and Josh Malone have emerged as go-to receivers for the Vols – something the Vols were searching for when the season began.

Jennings, a 6-3, 205-pound sophomore from Murfreesboro Blackman, had three catches for 71 yards (and the Hail Mary TD) against Georgia. Against Florida, Jennings’ 67-yard touchdown play gave the Vols a 24-21 lead, their first of the game.

Malone, of Gallatin’s Station Camp High School, had at least one touchdown catch in each of the Vols first four games, but the streak was snapped against Georgia (two catches, 23 yards).

Malone leads the Vols with 15 catches for 310 yards (20.7-yard average) and five touchdowns. Jennings has 12 catches for 213 yards (17.8-yard average) and three touchdowns.

“The play of a quarterback is the byproduct of the individuals around him,” Jones says, “and we have some individuals right now who are playing very, very well. Josh Malone is playing winning football for us. Jauan Jennings is playing winning football for us. When Preston Williams got in the game (at Georgia), I thought he did some really good things.”

Complete Kamara

Jones says the Vols didn’t change offensive schemes in the second half when speedy tailback Alvin Kamara replaced Hurd, a power runner.

The 5-10, 215-pound Kamara led the Vols in rushing against the Bulldogs with 62 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for 26 yards and a touchdown.

On his scoring play, Kamara caught a short pass from Dobbs, broke a tackle, and raced 16 yards to the end zone.

Kamara is the Vols’ third-leading rusher with 176 yards behind Hurd (407) and Dobbs (267), but has the best average per carry (4.3 yards) of the three.

Kamara is the Vols’ third-leading receiver with 12 catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns.

“Alvin Kamara is a complete running back,” Jones notes. “He can do it all. We have great confidence in his pass protection. He can run all the runs, obviously run all the routes that we need. He’s a complete running back, so that doesn’t change us from an offensive standpoint.”

‘Chief’ Chavis

UT fans will see a familiar face in Texas A&M defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis, who spent 14 seasons (1995-2008) as the Vols’ defensive coordinator.

Forgive Chavis if he’s still got a bit of a grudge against UT.

When Lane Kiffin was hired to replace fired UT head coach Phillip Fulmer in 2008, Kiffin relieved Chavis of his duties as defensive coordinator.

Chavis, who helped the Vols to five appearances in SEC Championship games and was DC for the 1998 national championship team, landed at LSU after Tennessee and spent six years as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. He was hired by Texas A&M in 2015 to fortify the defense, and the Aggies jumped 50 spots in total defense during his first season.

His defense has been OK this year.

South Carolina gained 378 total yards and 21 first downs against Texas A&M last Saturday, but didn’t get into the end zone after A.J. Turner’s 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game.

The Aggies rank fourth in the SEC in points allowed per game (15.4) but are ninth in total defense (388.2 yards allowed).

“Obviously their front seven is phenomenal when you look at first-round draft picks across the board, very, very deep in the interior of their defensive front,” Jones says. “Their safeties, their corners, they can play man coverage. I’ve been really, really impressed with their safeties and how they leverage the football, their downhill safeties. They go get the football.”

Senior linebacker Shaan Washington leads Texas A&M in tackles (38) and has 4.5 tackles for loss.

Big-play Tray

True freshman Trayveon Williams has been a big-play rushing threat for the Aggies this season with six runs of more than 20-plus yards, including four for touchdowns.

Williams broke a 49-yard touchdown run against South Carolina for a 14-7 lead in the third quarter. He finished with the game-high 98 rushing yards on 14 carries (7 yards per carry).

The Houston native leads the nation in yards per carry (9.0) and has 487 rushing yards this season, which ranks 23rd nationally and fourth in the SEC.

Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford is the Aggies’ third-leading rusher with 213 yards (5-yard average) and three touchdowns, but left the South Carolina game early due to injury and didn’t return. He’s questionable for Tennessee.

Ford, a junior, did not play in 2015 under NCAA transfer rules. Against UT in 2014, Ford rushed for 56 yards on 15 carries and scored on an 11-yard run, and caught two passes for 35 yards, including a 23-yard TD pass from Knight.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.