Florida out to vanquish its Jimbo Fisher problem Saturday in College Station
It was a game many circled when the SEC released the new, conference-only team schedules in August.
Florida and Texas A&M in College Station.
It was a premier game rich with storylines.
Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M are out to prove that last year’s 8-5 campaign was mostly just a product of a brutal schedule, one that saw the Aggies play 3 teams ranked No. 1 in the course of the regular season (Clemson, Alabama, LSU) and 5 total games against top 10 teams. Sure, the Aggies went 0-5 in those games, but they were 8-0 against anyone not ranked in the top 10. The 2020 season was about taking the next step.
Dan Mullen and Florida are out to prove that they are truly ready to wrestle control of the SEC East back from Georgia and stake a claim to the national spot. Yeah, the 21 wins and back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl winning seasons were an incredible start to the Mullen era, but Florida won’t be back again until it beats Georgia. A game at the 12th man was a heady challenge placed in Florida’s path.
Two senior quarterbacks in Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond shouldering massive expectations, even if they were coming off very different 2019 seasons.
Florida’s first trip to College Station since 2012, a reminder of both an epic game won by Florida in Johnny Manziel’s first college start and that these games occur too seldomly thanks to a broken SEC cross-divisional scheduling system in need of reform.
This was going to be a fun game, and in a shortened season, perhaps one with national implications.
But for Florida, Saturday’s game against Texas A&M is personal.
It might not be to Florida’s individual players, although the Gators do carry multiple players from Texas who will play in their home states as Gators for the first time, including senior quarterback Kyle Trask (Manvel), senior strong safety Donovan Stiner (Bellaire) and senior offensive lineman Jean Delance (Mesquite).
The game will be personal to Florida’s program and its fan base.
It’s a chance to compete against Jimbo Fisher, a central figure and villain in the most miserable decade of Florida football since the 1970s,
Fisher, of course, came to Texas A&M from Florida State, where he was the head coach from 2010-2017. In 8 seasons in charge of Florida’s in-state rival, Fisher went 83-23 (78% win percentage), won 3 conference championships and a national championship in 2013. More vitally, Fisher went 7-1 against Florida, a dominance of the Sunshine State rivalry not seen on the FSU side even in the halcyon days of the Bobby Bowden era. In the process, Fisher positioned FSU as the premier program in the state for most of the 2010s, and he used the dominance over Florida to great effect on the recruiting trail. Fisher constantly won multiple high profile 1-on-1 recruiting battles over the Gators, including a well-publicized and painful one for the services of running back Dalvin Cook, a future Gator-killer who still haunts the dreams of Florida fans everywhere.
Fisher’s success over Florida wasn’t a fluke. The Seminoles won 6 games over Florida in the Fisher era by at least 2 touchdowns. In 5 of the wins, Fisher’s Noles held the Gators to 1 offensive touchdown or less.
Fisher’s towering control over the rivalry and FSU’s presence in the national landscape undoubtedly contributed to Florida’s 2010s coaching carousel. Urban Meyer resigned for the second time (and for good) as Florida’s head coach shortly after being pummeled by Fisher and FSU in Tallahassee in 2010, snapping Florida’s 6-game winning streak in the rivalry in the process. Will Muschamp beat Fisher in 2012 (Florida’s lone win over Fisher in football), and was competitive as a lame-duck head coach in 2014. But in between his teams were pummelled by a combined score of 58-14 and Muschamp’s inability to outflank Fisher on the trail accelerated his departure. Jim McElwain’s teams won 2 SEC East crowns but weren’t even competitive against Fisher, losing 3 games (one of which McElwain wasn’t around to coach) by an average score of 32-12.
Fisher’s ability to control a big-time rivalry like that one was a big reason A&M ponied up $75 million to bring him to College Station in December 2017. If Fisher could be that dominant in a state with a fertile recruiting base, even with less institutional resources than a rival, how could he fail at a place like Texas A&M, with an equal or perhaps better recruiting base and exponentially better institutional support than he had at Florida State? It was a lot of money, but it seemed at the time like a well-calculated and supported gamble.
Of course, it hasn’t gone that well for Texas A&M.
The Aggies are 18-10 under Fisher in 2 years and 2 games, and only 10-8 in the SEC. Fisher has recruited very well (3 top-7 classes, per the 247 composite) but the talent has yet to improve the program’s bottom line. In fact, the Aggies looked hopelessly behind and overmatched this past weekend in a 52-24 loss to No. 2 Alabama. The defeat was Fisher’s 6th consecutive loss to a ranked opponent at A&M, and as SDS’ Connor O’Gara wrote this weekend, his wins and losses don’t even compare favorably to Kevin Sumlin’s first 28 games at this point (22-6), and while Sumlin had Johnny Manziel for that period, Fisher has had 3 years to develop Kellen Mond, and the senior and 4th-year starting Aggies quarterback appears stuck mostly in neutral.
The Aggies, then, are in a precarious position with the No. 4 Gators headed to town. Fisher’s program desperately needs the kind of statement victory that assures everyone the program is on the right track and that the very expensive juice was worth the squeeze when the Aggies poached a restless Fisher from FSU. The mess Fisher left behind in Tallahassee was substantial, and one FSU is still dealing with now, but that’s a column for another day. For now, Fisher has to be worried that this season could turn into a mess without an upset of the Gators on Saturday.
Mullen, of course, wasn’t a part of any of Florida’s futility against Fisher.
Mullen never lost to FSU in his time as Florida’s offensive coordinator, including a pair of wins over the Seminoles while Fisher was Bowden’s offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting. Mullen has never faced Fisher head-to-head as a head coach, and he’s had his own rebuilding project to worry about. He probably hasn’t given Florida’s futility against Fisher much thought. Mullen is 23-5 in his first 28 games at Florida, and his main concern is entering the meat of the schedule Saturday and getting to 24-5 with LSU and Georgia looming over the next month. Mullen’s focus on the next game is a good thing.
But it won’t keep the years of misery Fisher delivered Gators fans off the minds of the Florida fan base this week. Florida fans feel no sympathy for Fisher’s struggles in College Station, and they have waited years for their shot at a reeling Jimbo. They’ll get it Saturday, and will relish the opportunity to send Fisher to 1-9 against top-10 opposition in his tenure at Texas A&M.
Mullen has already vanquished some of Florida’s 2010s demons. Florida’s rout of Michigan in the 2018 Peach Bowl was sweet vengeance for an embarrassing loss to the Wolverines in Dallas that was the beginning of the end for McElwain, and it ended years of program futility against Michigan. Mullen’s rout of FSU in 2018 turned the page on Fisher’s dominance in the series, re-established Florida’s in-state supremacy and punctuated just what a mess Fisher left behind at FSU. And Florida hadn’t finished with a top 10 ranking since 2012 before they managed the feat in both of Mullen’s first 2 seasons in Gainesville.
Why not vanquish another demon — the Jimbo problem — Saturday in College Station?
These storylines — the things coaches tend to ignore that fans care so deeply about — make college football so compelling. Revenge matters, even if it takes years to get it.