First and 10: Can Jimbo and Texas A&M really beat Nick Saban's (rear end)? They're closer than you think
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Let’s not overthink this and wade into a cesspool of lunacy that typically arrives when – heaven forbid – anyone looks sideways at Nick Saban.
Because what Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said to the Houston Quarterback Club last week should be seen through more than just a hot take lens. There’s nonsensical surface noise that social media gloms onto, and there’s the truth that lies beneath.
Fisher said he wants to beat Saban’s ass. Yeah, what’s new?
Everyone in college football does, too.
“We all want to beat his ass, are you kidding me?” a former Saban assistant coach told me this week. “Guess what? Nick wants to beat our ass worse – and he’s doing a pretty damn good job of it last time I checked.”
This is where we are in college football, like it or not. Until someone can successfully and consistently dethrone Alabama’s uber-successful coach, it’s all nonsensical surface noise.
But dig deeper and see the truth that lies beneath.
Fisher and Saban are close friends, and Fisher has built two successful programs (Florida State, Texas A&M) using the template he learned as an assistant under Saban.
They speak the same process football language, they demand perfection from players and anyone associated with the program. Zero tolerance for anything less.
Now understand this: Fisher was close – thisclose – to replicating Saban’s magic at Alabama while the coach at Florida State. The Noles won big (29 straight wins from 2012-2014, a national title, a College Football Playoff appearance), and were consistently recruiting top-5 classes.
At one point under Fisher, FSU had won 40 of 42 games and went into the 2017 season as a favorite to reach the CFP. And wouldn’t you know it, Saban was standing in the doorway in Week 1.
A talented FSU team trailed Alabama 10-7 in the season-opener before starting quarterback Deondre Francois blew out his knee in the third quarter. The game, the season and Fisher’s FSU tenure were never the same.
That’s what makes this run at Texas A&M so important, and so defining in Fisher’s desire to beat his mentor. It fell apart at FSU with bad luck, bad misses in recruiting quarterbacks, and with Fisher’s own hand (an entitled locker room).
It has taken 3 seasons in College Station, but it’s clear Fisher is on the verge of potentially replicating what he had at FSU. He’s consistently recruiting top-10 classes, he’s developing NFL quarterbacks, his defense is among the best in college football.
The only thing left: beat Saban’s ass.
Look, this is why Texas A&M lured Fisher from FSU, why those deep-pocket 10-gallon hats pushed every chip to the center of the table and gave Fisher a guaranteed $75 million contract. They want it sooner rather than later.
The Aggies are at the point under Fisher where mass graduation and early NFL entries don’t impact the following season like would other programs (more on that later). More important – and more pressing in the pass-happy world of college football — the most important position on the field isn’t annually the one full of questions.
Now more than ever, college football revolves around the quarterback. Those who can recruit and develop the position are those who win big.
Fisher did it early at FSU and developed NFL first-round picks Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston. He then made a few bad character choices – Francois, DeAndre Johnson, Malik Henry – at the end of his tenure that played a significant role in FSU’s decline.
Now here we are at Texas A&M, where Fisher inherited Kellen Mond and patiently worked to develop him and the program on parallel tracks. It all clicked in Year 3, except for that one, nagging, 28-point loss to You Know Who.
The next logical step is beating Saban’s ass – you know, the zero attention span society headline that generated all the buzz. But what Fisher told the quarterback club after was more telling:
“I respect everything they do and how they do it, but we can do it just as good or be just as good or better – and we will,” Fisher said. “That’s what our goal is and what I want. So we’re going to get it done.”
Translation: the deeper truth that lies beneath.
2. The set-up season
It’s easy to point out the flaws in Year 3 at Texas A&M for Fisher, and question whether there will be a significant jump in 2021.
The pandemic season gave the Aggies an East Division rotation of games that included 3 cupcakes (3 teams that fired their coaches) and a game against Florida in College Station.
The Gators had the ball on the positive side of the field late in a tied game and were driving, and needed only to run clock and kick a field goal with the SEC’s most accurate kicker to win. They had scored on 6 of the previous 7 drives in the game.
Then Malik Davis fumbled, the Aggies recovered and eventually kicked the game-winning field goal – eliminating the only non-Alabama loss of the season.
But understand this: The Florida game – and to an extent wins over Auburn and LSU – were games the Aggies would fumble away in previous seasons. Finding a way to beat the Gators was critical in the growth of the program and for future seasons.
Fisher hasn’t simply brought better players to Texas A&M, he has changed the mindset of competing in the fourth quarter. He has given the program a fearless attitude of imposing your will on the other team, no matter the circumstances.
Exhibit A: the Orange Bowl win over North Carolina.
UNC scored to go up 20-17, forced a 3-and-out late in the third quarter and had momentum. Texas A&M scored 24 of the next 31 points.
“There were moments in that game, where I’m sure guys said, ‘can we do this?’ That’s what happens,” Fisher said. “So you say yes, don’t worry about it, go to the next play. But you’ve got to learn to do that.”
Fisher rebuilt a stale FSU program, but did so with the backdrop of decades of success behind him. He has done heavy lifting at Texas A&M, where the only backdrop of late had been an underachieving team that always wanted more – but never had enough to get there.
Fisher won a national title at FSU in his fourth season. If he beats Saban’s ass this fall and gets to the College Football Playoff, he’ll have earned every dime of that $75 million.
3. Beating Saban, The Epilogue
The obvious question: How does it happen?
How does a team that lost a majority of its offensive line and a 4-year starter at quarterback find a way to sidetrack the most successful run in college football history?
There’s no real answer, but it begins at the lines of scrimmage and with the knowledge that it can be done.
“Our guys didn’t just think we could do it,” Hugh Freeze told me a few years ago. “We were convinced we would do it.”
Freeze did it with two overmatched Ole Miss teams in 2014-15, and two quarterbacks (Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly) who weren’t exactly Tebow and Newton. They found a way by playing great defense and forcing turnovers, and never panicking in the moment.
The Aggies will have a top-3 SEC defense in 2021, and an offensive line that – despite being rebuilt – could be just as physical and defining as last year’s Maroon Goons. The X-factor is projected starting QB Haynes King, who will have 5 winnable games to find a rhythm before Alabama comes to College Station.
He’ll have what should be the most dangerous run game in the SEC with tailback Isaiah Spiller, and a defense that last season led the SEC in total defense and opponent 3rd-down conversions.
King doesn’t have to be game-changing against the Tide; he just can’t commit critical mistakes that invariably change the tone of the game. Quickly.
Saban likes to say every successful offensive series ends with a kick: a touchdown conversion, a field goal or a punt. Anything else, and you’re at risk.
Trailing 21-14 last season, Mond threw a pick-6 and the avalanche began. A series later, an Aggies drive ended on downs (see: no drive ending in a kick) at the Tide 35.
It took Alabama 59 seconds to score again and turn the game into a rout. Another Texas A&M drive in the second half that ended on the Alabama 23 led to 3 points from the Tide.
That’s 17 points, and one more fourth-quarter drive ended with an interception at the Alabama 10. That pick was thrown by King, who was in the game to experience it.
And yes, Fisher already was looking ahead to 2021.
“We live in a world of vision or circumstance,” Fisher said. “We try to live in vision, and if you can’t see the things in the future and know what it takes to get there, you’re never going to get there.”
4. Rich getting richer
Don’t say you weren’t warned. Don’t think Nick Saban was just letting off steam because he was annoyed about losing control of roster management.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you star LB Henry To’o To’o and the NCAA’s new unfettered transfer rule.
The former Tennessee star made it official late last weekend when he transferred to Alabama to join the most loaded roster in college football – to play this season without having to sit out.
Now, let’s reverse course to late last year, when Saban was asked about the NCAA debating about giving players one free transfer year without limitations.
“We’ll lose some good players,” Saban said. “But we’ll add some great players.”
I’ve been a strong proponent of the transfer rule, and the reality that it’s another way to give back to players already giving so much to their universities.
But for every transfer decision that allows players to get a fresh start, there are others that strengthen the rich of the game. It’s not just Alabama (which also got former 5-star WR Jameson Williams from Ohio State); CFP regular Oklahoma benefitted from the Tennessee fire sale of players leaving after coach Jeremy Pruitt’s firing, landing potential starters RB Eric Gray, OT Wanya Morris and DB Key Lawrence.
“That (To’o To’o) transfer, man, that’s a gut punch to our entire conference,” one SEC coach told me Sunday.
5. The Weekly Five
The top 5 impact transfers for the 2021 season:
1. LB Henry To’o To’o, from Tennessee to Alabama
2. LB Mike Jones, Clemson to LSU
3. DB Tykee Smith, from West Virginia to Georgia
4. WR Wan’Dale Robinson, from Nebraska to Kentucky
5. DT Antonio Shelton, from Penn State to Florida
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama CB Josh Jobe.
“He got a lot better, more refined, in his first year on the outside as a starter. He’s a physical guy, and you need that with the expansion of the passing game. You need a guy that can jam at the point of attack, and disrupt timing. He’s a little stiff sometimes and bites hard at times on double moves. This is an important year for him because he’s on the No. 1 receiver now. My guess is you’ll see a big season for a couple of reasons. First, he’ll get better and continue to refine and not do things so robotically. The difference between his first season and last year was significant. Second, he’s working with a dangerous pass rush, and that reduces coverage time and allows him to play more aggressive. He’s a late first-rounder right now, with the potential to move up.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – ranking the nonconference schedules.
1. Georgia: Clemson (Charlotte), UAB, Charleston Southern, Georgia Tech: Clemson is the SEC non-con game of the season. On that alone, congrats to the Dawgs.
2. Vanderbilt: East Tennessee State, at Colorado State, Stanford, UConn: A Pac-12 heavyweight (Stanford) and a road game (Colorado State) make up for 1½ FCS teams.
3. LSU: at UCLA, McNeese State, Central Michigan, Louisiana-Monroe. No surprise here: LSU playing a Power 5 school on the road and a strong G5 (Central Michigan).
4. South Carolina: Eastern Illinois, at ECU, Troy, Clemson: Gamecocks get credit for a G5 road game, and of course, the rivalry with Clemson.
5. Mississippi State: Louisiana Tech, NC State, at Memphis, Tennessee State: The first three games are no gimme putts and absolutely necessary wins for postseason plans.
6. Missouri: Central Michigan, Southeast Missouri State, at Boston College, North Texas: Two solid G5 games and a rebuilding P5 Boston College.
7. Auburn: Akron, Alabama State, at Penn State, Georgia State: A big, big win on the Penn State game. The other three games? Pffffft.
8. Alabama: Miami (Atlanta), Mercer, Southern Miss, New Mexico State: If Miami QB D’Eriq King is healthy, Week 1 could be intriguing.
9. Arkansas: Rice, Texas, Georgia Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff: Texas coming to Fayetteville for the first time 2004. The last meeting in 2014, former Hogs coach Bret Bielema called the win over the former SWC rival “borderline erotic.”
10. Florida: FAU, at USF, Samford, FSU: Wildly disappointing for an SEC heavyweight – even if Florida can’t control FSU’s regression.
11. Texas A&M: Kent State, Colorado (Denver), New Mexico, Prairie View A&M: See: Florida schedule – without the FSU excuse.
12. Ole Miss: Louisville (Atlanta), Austin Peay, Tulane, Liberty: Forget about the cupcake nature and zero in on Liberty and Hugh Freeze coming to Oxford in early November. Hello, redemption.
13. Tennessee: Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama: Josh Heupel desperately needs these four wins, though nothing is a lock for the depleted Vols.
14. Kentucky: Louisiana-Monroe, Chattanooga, New Mexico State, Louisville: Three embarrassing games and a rival trying to rebuild. Woof.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I see Ed Orgeron as LSU’s version of Gene Chizik. A guy who got lucky with a great quarterback, and was then exposed when the quarterback left. In over his head with the big boys. Prove to me I’m wrong.
Patrick Grainer, New Orleans
Patrick: Orgeron didn’t get “lucky” with Joe Burrow. He had the foresight to hire a young wunderkind coach (Joe Brady) who developed a quarterback who couldn’t get off the bench at Ohio State.
He also navigated a dangerous situation by bringing in 29-year-old Brady to work with a 60-something Steve Ensminger – and beautifully massaged the egos to make it work. He’s also a fantastic recruiter and motivator, two critical personality traits needed to thrive in the meatgrinder SEC.
Two things, however, stick out from the national championship follow-up season: He made a poor hire at defensive coordinator (Bo Pelini), and QB Myles Brennan sustained a season-ending injury in the first month of the season. Brennan was on the verge of a big season.
We don’t know where Orgeron stands with the university as far as the Title IX investigation, and that will play out over the summer.
But strictly football, he’s not close to “in over his head.” He’s like every other coach in the SEC: trying to find a way to win each week.
And he has already proven he can do it at the highest level, which is a fairly significant accomplishment.
103 and 14. Florida returns 10 wide receivers or tight ends who caught balls in 2020, for a total of 103 catches and 14 TDs. There’s no Kyle Pitts in that receiving group, but there are plenty of options for QB Emory Jones and coach Dan Mullen.
Don’t be shocked if this group outperforms just like the 2020 group, which came into the season as a significant question because of the loss of 5 players to the NFL. The Gators’ staff expects big things from sophomore Xavier Henderson, and from juniors Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter (both elite recruits), who are playing in money years. Both will be eligible for the NFL Draft.
The last Florida receiver playing on a money year? Kadarius Toney, who had 50 career catches and 2 TDs prior to last season – and responded with 70 catches and 10 TDs, and was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.
10. Quote to note
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz, on the SEC being a quarterback-driven league: “Quarterbacks are the erasers. Their athletic ability gives them a chance to extend plays to make plays. When you’re talking about a QB-driven league, it’s do you have one who can extend plays, or is smart enough in your system to get you into the right play.”