Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
On January 14, 1982, Texas A&M head coach Tom Wilson was on a recruiting trip, having received a contract extension a month earlier. His struggles to reset the program had led to a 7-5 campaign and an Independence Bowl win that previous fall.
That evening, he had to explain to some recruit why he was getting fired.
Rumors had sprang up about a bank-breaking offer sent to Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler. With interim AD Wally Groff in place, prominent boosters were making a power move. “It’s obvious they’re trying to bring in a new head coach,” Wilson told the Houston Post. “Obviously [regent] Bum Bright doesn’t want me to stay.”
Schembechler pondered A&M’s offer for a day but remained in Ann Arbor. So Bright and the checkbook writers moved on to 38-year-old Jackie Sherrill, a former Alabama assistant who had succeeded Pitt national title winner Johnny Majors and had five top-10 finishes. Sherrill signed the richest contract in college football history, a six-year deal worth $1.7 million a year.
The Aggies didn’t get their money’s worth. He labored through three ~.500 seasons, and though he ripped off three consecutive top-15 finishes and Cotton Bowl bids, he resigned under a cloud of NCAA sanctions.
A&M doesn’t like swimming in place. It tends to lead to big gestures.
I would say that a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed contract qualifies as a big gesture.
Another former SEC assistant who took over for a legend at what is now an ACC school and engineered a series of top-10 finishes, Fisher was the perfect A&M candidate.
His tenure had grown stale in Tallahassee; he looked burned out on the sideline, he was dealing with a freshman quarterback every year, and his coaching staff was past its expiration date. He could have turned things back around, following a 7-6 2017, but he and FSU got new starts when A&M grew tired of swimming in place with Kevin Sumlin.
After an 11-win debut, Sumlin established a steady dance: begin barely ranked or unranked, surge into the top-10, beat Arkansas, and finish 8-5. That had been the formula every year since Johnny Manziel left, and while there are worse things than defeating a rival, going to a bowl, etc., A&M is forever on a quest for more.
Can Fisher deliver more? Possibly, though until Nick Saban retires and/or the SEC gets rid of divisions, that could be tricky. The Aggies’ schedule isn’t going to get easier — in fact, this year it features Clemson in non-conference play and five games against projected top-16 teams.
As with basically any season since 1939, though, A&M’s got potential. If Fisher can keep boosters in line, recruit talent (so far, so good), and keep it matriculating through the program, there’s no reason he can’t create a top-15 program in College Station. But can he do more? And how long would top-15 be enough for a school paying him top-3 money?
Here’s a list of the seniors who will play key roles on Fisher’s first Aggie offense:
- Guards Keaton Sutherland and Connor Lanfear
- Maybe Arizona tight end transfer Trevor Wood
A&M’s 2017 offense was led by two freshman quarterbacks, a sophomore running back, a receiving corps with one senior, one junior, and eight freshmen, and a line that not only had to start 10 different players but handed 28 of those starts to freshmen and sophomores.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Aggies were inefficient and inconsistent.
With a chance to put together a brand new staff, Fisher made an interesting coordinator choice. Fisher’s FSU offense was a throwback of sorts, as “pro-style” as any offense can be in 2017. His Seminoles played at nearly the slowest tempo in the country, sending in oft-complicated calls for young QBs. So it was a little bit of a surprise when he hired Darrell Dickey away from Memphis. To say the least, UM’s offensive footprint was a bit different than FSU’s.
- Standard-downs run rate: FSU 61.7% (45th in FBS), Memphis 51.0% (112th)
- Passing-downs run rate: FSU 30.2% (90th), Memphis 28.2% (105th)
- Adjusted pace: Memphis minus-3.0 seconds per snap (14th), FSU plus-3.6 seconds per snap (127th)
- % of solo tackles generated: Memphis 85% (sixth), FSU 67% (110th)
Of course, we sometimes err by defining a coach only by his last stop. Before Memphis, Dickey led run-heavy attacks at Texas State, New Mexico, and Utah State, and when he was North Texas’ head coach, his best seasons were defined by sending his running back into the line 20-plus times per game.
You hire the 58-year-old Dickey as much for his care-taking as you do for his offensive philosophy. But I’m curious what impact he might have on Fisher, especially in tempo. When you’ve got a talent advantage, trying to run more plays gives you more margin for error.
I guess the “talent advantage” part of that will have a lot to do with the QB. Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel were each in and out of the lineup in 2017.
- Mond did some impressive things early (Weeks 3-6, including a game against Alabama: 62.4 percent completion rate, 139.7 passer rating) before collapsing (Weeks 7-9: 34 percent and 59.3).
- When Starkel took over, he looked awfully good. He produced at least a 134.8 passer rating in five of six games down the stretch, and he was 42-for-63 for 499 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick in the bowl shootout against Wake Forest.
The two are evidently dead even as fall camp begins, and chances are, the battle won’t end with whoever starts in Week 1. But the winner could be determined by how much help the run game needs. For the season, Starkel was drastically more efficient than Mond throwing the ball, but not including sacks, he rushed four times for minus-2 yards all year. Mond, on the other hand, averaged 6.7 yards per non-sack carry.
The run game was a tremendous disappointment last year, at least in part because of the constant shuffling up front. Only one player, center Erik McCoy, started all 13 games. Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford had combined to average 6.1 yards per carry in 2016 but managed just 4.3 in 2017; A&M fell from 64th to 122nd in rushing success rate, which meant that these young QBs were forced to throw from awkward downs and distances.
Nine of those 10 linemen return, at least, and they’ll be joined in competition by JUCO transfer Mohamed Diallo, four-star redshirt freshman Grayson Reed, and a couple of four-star true freshmen.
The receiving corps remains absurdly young. Leader Christian Kirk is now an Arizona Cardinal, but every returning wideout with a 2017 target is now a sophomore. Jhamon Ausbon, Camron Buckley, and Roshauud Paul all produced marginal efficiency ratings of at least plus-9 percent — pretty strong, considering the state of the run game and the youth of the QBs — and Buckley brought explosiveness, averaging 16.6 yards per catch.
The tight end two-deep is brand new, manned by Wood, JUCO transfer Jace Sternberger, and some freshmen, but this is about the most experienced all-sophomore WR corps you’ll see, and it appears there’s some potential star power there. If Fisher and Dickey can establish the run, they should establish the pass.
Fisher’s first big win came when he lured defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Notre Dame.
Elko has quickly emerged as one of the nation’s better young coordinators (41 is still “young,” right?). He was Dave Clawson’s right-hand man at Bowling Green and Wake Forest and crafted two top-30 (per Def. S&P+) defenses in three years at Wake. In his first season in South Bend, he held the fort despite youth and injuries.
If nothing else, he’ll deal with a low bar in his first season at A&M. The defense faded over three seasons with DC John Chavis, surging to 27th in his first year but falling to 71st in 2017.
Again, youth was an issue. It seemingly always was for Sumlin. The line was reasonably experienced but lacked its engine after losing ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall (28 tackles for loss in 2016), and both the linebacking corps and secondary were loaded with freshmen and sophomores. They ranked in the 30s in both Rushing S&P+ and Passing S&P+ but were dragged down by horrible red zone performance. For what it’s worth, that was an Elko strength — the Irish were 18th in points allowed per scoring opportunity last year, compared to A&M’s No. 90 ranking.
Six of last year’s top eight havoc producers (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles) return, at least one from each level of the defense.
The secondary might be the strength. Strong safety Armani Watts is gone, but the next eight tacklers are back, as is Donovan Wilson, who missed 2017 with a foot injury and could fill Watts’ shoes. A trio of young corners — sophomores Debione Renfro and Myles Jones and junior Charles Oliver — combine for four TFLs, 22 passes defensed, and six forced fumbles last year.
Plus, five returning safeties made at least 18.5 tackles last year for a secondary that was constantly shuffling its lineup. There’s a nice combination of quantity and known production.
There’s also some pass-rushing prowess: end Landis Durham (10.5 sacks) and linebackers Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka (combined: 23 TFLs, 11 sacks, 13 passes defensed) all return.
The run defense was at least decent (39th in Rushing S&P+), and with virtually every linebacker returning and only one tackle gone (Zaycoven Henderson), you could make the case that this will improve a bit, too, especially if some four-star sophomores (linebacker Anthony Hines III, tackles Justin Madubuike and Jayden Peevy) make second-year leaps.
But this unit could be defined again by red zone performance. Hold opponents to field goals, and A&M can win.
A&M ranked 18th in Special Teams S&P+ last season, thanks to the combination of Shane Tripucka’s mostly unreturnable punts, Daniel LaCamera’s inside-40-yards perfection, and Kirk’s explosive punt returns.
LaCamera’s back, at least. The other two aren’t, but the return game could still be in decent shape with the return of Deshawn Capers-Smith in punt returns and Trayveon Williams and Clyde Chriss (combined: 10 returns, 29.6 average) in kick returns. This unit could still be a strength — and it bears mentioning that Fisher had three top-10 special teams rankings in the last four seasons — but Tripucka and Kirk will be missed.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|13-Oct||at South Carolina||35||1.3||53%|
|27-Oct||at Mississippi State||14||-7.2||34%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||24|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||32 / 33|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||9.9 (23)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||14 / 10|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||3 / -0.6|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||+1.4|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||72% (66%, 78%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||6.2 (0.8)|
By the end of the first month, Fisher will have faced perhaps the country’s two national title favorites in Clemson (at home on September 7) and Alabama (in Tuscaloosa on September 21). The schedule eases up afterward, as he only has to face S&P+ projected No. 5 Auburn and No. 14 Mississippi State on the road and No. 16 LSU and No. 25 Ole Miss at home in the final two months.
If nothing else, the schedule should keep expectations tamped down. The Aggies could still be pretty successful — they are projected 24th because of high returning production and solid recruiting, and there are five opponents projected 52nd or worse — and S&P+ projects them likely to win around seven games, while eight isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Come close to that, return most of your offense in 2019, and let expectations grow from there.
Fisher would have to produce SEC titles and national title contention to live up to his gaudy contract, and I’m not sure he’ll get there. But give him a couple of years to mold this still-young roster and add his own blue-chippers, and he should give the SEC West another pretty awesome program.