Much has changed for Aggies, Vols since meeting in 2020 finale

Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee senior defensive end Tyler Baron is shown here as a freshman in 2020, when the Volunteers concluded a COVID-altered season with a 34-13 loss to Texas A&M before a Neyand Stadium crowd of 22,645.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee senior defensive end Tyler Baron is shown here as a freshman in 2020, when the Volunteers concluded a COVID-altered season with a 34-13 loss to Texas A&M before a Neyand Stadium crowd of 22,645.

Texas A&M’s 12th football season in the Southeastern Conference will contain its first trip to a full Neyland Stadium.

A checkerboarded 101,915-seat facility will be the setting Saturday afternoon (3:30 on CBS) when the No. 19 Volunteers look to improve on their 4-1 record that includes a 1-1 mark in SEC contests. Tennessee was off this past weekend, while Texas A&M saw a 17-10 halftime lead against visiting Alabama unravel in a 26-20 loss that lowered the Aggies to 4-2 overall and 2-1 within the league.

This is Tennessee’s only unique SEC opponent this season in what has been an infrequent cross-divisional format that is going away with the 2024 arrivals of Oklahoma and Texas.

“This is a big football game that’s coming up against a really good football team really in all three phases of the game,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Monday in his news conference. “They have scheme and players that can change the way a game is played, and they are playing as well defensively as anybody in the country. Offensively, they have a veteran quarterback and skill players who can make a bunch of plays.

“They’re extremely dangerous on special teams as well.”

A lot has changed since Texas A&M and Tennessee ended the COVID-altered 2020 season with the Aggies thumping the Vols 34-13 before a capped crowd of 22,645 inside Neyland. That result was overshadowed by breaking news that Tennessee was conducting an investigation into alleged recruiting violations under former coach Jeremy Pruitt, which ultimately led to the terminating of Pruitt several weeks later.

Tennessee finished 3-7 in 2020, while the Aggies followed up their victory in Knoxville with an Orange Bowl triumph over North Carolina to wrap up a 9-1 season that included a No. 4 ranking. Since then, however, Texas A&M has backtracked to 8-4 and 5-7 seasons and enters Saturday’s showdown having lost seven consecutive true road games.

“Whether you go to the hotel on this day or at that time, what you approach is your maturity,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said Monday. “We’ll crank up maybe more crowd noise. We’ll have more situations. Usually what happens is that mature teams play well on the road. Mature teams are very confident and trust in things and believe in themselves.

“You just saw Alabama come in here and have eight or nine false starts. When you’re on the road in this league, it’s hard, and Tennessee is one of those hard places. We’re a little bit older this year, and hopefully that will help.”

Texas A&M addressed last season’s disappointment on multiple fronts, which included Fisher giving the play-calling reins to new coordinator and former Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino.

“He always has some balance in what he does,” Heupel said when asked about facing Petrino. “We’ve got to do a good job against the run and be able to handle all the different pass concepts that you’re going to see from them.”

Texas A&M has even undergone change since this season started, having to replace Conner Weigman with Max Johnson at quarterback after Weigman suffered a season-ending foot injury during the 27-10 win over Auburn on Sept. 23. Johnson was the SEC’s most experienced backup quarterback, having thrown for 2,815 yards and 27 touchdowns with only six interceptions two years ago as an LSU sophomore, and the transfer has completed 51 of 84 passes (60.7%) for 675 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions this season.

Johnson and the Aggies struggled in the final 30 minutes against Alabama, managing just 103 yards, including 15 on the ground.

“I don’t think they have philosophically changed what they are doing,” Heupel said. “Max is a guy who has played a lot of football in a lot of different environments, and he does a really good job of taking care of the football. He has the ability to extend and make plays and throw the ball down the field when the play breaks down or when he has pressure on him.”

Said senior Vols defensive end Tyler Baron: “They’ve got a really big group up front that does a great job of playing behind their pads. It’s going to be a physical game, and we’re excited for that.”

The bigger challenge for Tennessee could come on offense, as Texas A&M leads the SEC in rushing defense (allowing 84.0 yards per game) and total defense (268.8) while ranking among the nation’s top-10 in both categories.

“They’re good at stopping the run, and they’re good at getting after the quarterback, too,” Heupel said. “You’ve got to do a great job in communication. You’ve got to win some one-on-ones when you’re in one, and your double teams have to be good enough to change the way the line of scrimmage looks, too.

“It’s a big test for us up front and across the board for us offensively.”

No more McCoy

Tennessee is playing the rest of the season without fifth-year senior receiver Bru McCoy, who suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle during the 41-20 win over South Carolina on Sept. 30.

Redshirt freshmen Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb replaced McCoy on the depth chart released Monday, but Heupel said that Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton can play outside as well. Thornton didn’t play against the Gamecocks, but Heupel expects McCoy’s void to be filled by all three Saturday.

“The offense won’t really change,” he said. “Those guys have been involved in perimeter screens, and we feel good about their development. They’ve got to practice well and prepare well to get them in position to go play well, and we certainly expect that from them.”

Odds and ends

Senior cornerback Doneiko Slaughter, who hasn’t played since the second game against Austin Peay, should be available this week, according to Heupel. … Heupel on former Vols and Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who will be honored during Saturday’s game: “He’s a guy who represents everything that is good about Tennessee football.” … Heupel said he was able to watch the game-winning drive in Oklahoma’s 34-30 downing of Texas this past weekend. Heupel quarterbacked the Sooners to the 2000 national championship, and Sooners quarterback Dillon Gabriel led Heupel-coached UCF teams in the 2019-20 seasons.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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