It’s true that the 2023 college football season will be very meaningful for Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M.
Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com
After failing to make a bowl game in 2022, there’s no question that the Aggies need to be much, much better in order for fans and donors and administrators to feel this program can still become elite in the future. If the Aggies win eight or nine games this year, it will enable everyone in College Station to breathe a little bit and back away from the ledge. However, after a five-win season, some very tough questions have to be asked about Fisher, who has been at A&M for several years and is not in a clearly ascendant position.
It is true that injuries have affected A&M at the quarterback spot in recent seasons, but even with that reality factored into the larger equation, it’s not as though A&M had a slam-dunk talent at the position. The injures affected development and rhythm within the offense, but it’s not as though the Aggies had a Caleb Williams or Bryce Young-level talent under center and were destined for a 12-0 or 11-record before the injuries hit. No, it wasn’t like that. The injuries turned what was probably an 8-4 team into a 5-7 team.
Fisher’s much-discussed 2023 recruiting class did not pan out. The star rankings did not translate to the field. It’s true that A&M made a real run at the brass ring in the 2020 pandemic season, very nearly getting into the College Football Playoff. However, the pandemic year was an outlier precisely because it disrupted so many programs across the country and gave some teams an unusually good chance to achieve something special. A&M seems like a lucky outlier rather than a serious program which was always in the mix for championships. Three years after that pandemic season, such claims carry more weight and credibility, not less.
Fisher’s program certainly seems stuck. It’s true that he has given Nick Saban and Alabama a tough time the past few years, very nearly winning last year in Tuscaloosa after beating Bama in 2021. It’s true that Jimbo beat Brian Kelly and LSU last season, even though the Tigers won the SEC West and had a strong first season under the former Notre Dame coach who relocated to Baton Rouge to try his hand at coaching in the SEC. Yet, those wins and close games against LSU and Alabama feel like aberrations more than the true revealer of what A&M is. Why does this program belly-flop against the Mississippi States and South Carolinas of the world? Even with an injured QB1, shouldn’t A&M be able to clobber weaker teams at Kyle Field, instead of struggling with UMass (scoring just 20 points) or losing to Appalachian State?
Oilmen and other A&M megadonors did not pay Jimbo Fisher hundreds of millions of dollars for mediocrity, but that’s what they’re getting right now. There was and is a distinct feeling in SEC circles – basketball as well as football – that what’s happening to Jimbo at A&M closely resembles what’s happening to John Calipari at Kentucky. Both men have forged great careers, to be sure. They both won national championships and have knocked on the door of national titles in other seasons. They have had their runs of supreme success, interestingly enough at the same time (2010-2016 was when both men were ascendant in their respective professions, Fisher working at Florida State in that period before coming to AggieLand). Yet, over the past several years, there is and has been an undeniable sense that both men have lost their fastball.
Whether it’s the message not getting across, or the recruits not being as good, or the transfer portal not delivering the home-run acquisitions coaches need to stay on top of the game (think of Lincoln Riley getting Caleb Williams from Oklahoma and instantly changing USC, that sort of chess move), Calipari and Fisher simply haven’t been as good at their jobs since the 2016-2017 college sports cycle, when Fisher made his last New Year’s Six bowl at Florida State and Calipari guided Kentucky within an eyelash of the Final Four. Both men need a big season to resurrect their careers and write another glorious chapter in their respective stories before they eventually retire or are forced out, whenever that time might come.
If we look solely at Fisher and A&M, the 2023 season is highly unlikely to provide that kind of triumphant resurrection. A&M was so bad last season that improving to the nine-win level (as mentioned above) is probably the most realistic goal for this season. What really matters, though, is that Fisher builds A&M quickly enough that the Aggies can make a run at the brass ring in 2024. They will need to, if Fisher’s tenure is to be saved.
Here’s why: The 2024 schedule is a dream come true for the Aggies. They could not possibly have gotten a better slate with Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC. The Aggies don’t play Georgia, Alabama, or Tennessee, widely viewed as three of the four best teams in the conference. A&M gets a lot of mid-tier SEC opponents in 2024. When you stop and realize that in a 16-team conference, most of the other top teams are going to play at least two of the top four instead of only one, A&M’s schedule advantage becomes more pronounced.
A&M and Jimbo will need to have a national title contending roster ready in 2024, because if the Aggies can’t take full advantage of that schedule next year, they’re certainly not going to get as favorable an SEC schedule in 2025 or any subsequent year in the second half of the 2020s. It really could be the case that if Jimbo can’t make the 12-team College Football Playoff in 2024, with everything lined up in his favor as far as scheduling is concerned, that could be it for him.
This upcoming 2023 season matters, but it matters in a way you probably weren’t expecting when you sat down to read about the state of the Aggies. 2023 needs to set up 2024, because if Jimbo doesn’t crush it in 2024, he might get crushed, and a once-glistening career – still great in a larger context – will run out of steam far earlier than planned.