First and 10: It's go time, Jimbo. Why Florida could be the beginning of end for Texas A&M coach
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
If Alabama was the bar for Jimbo Fisher, Florida is the referendum.
At this point, it’s a binary choice: 3 years into a guaranteed $75 million coaching contract, is Texas A&M getting tangible dividends from its investment in Fisher?
“In this conference, every game is important, every game is big,” Fisher says.
In the SEC, one game can set in motion a chain of events that can unravel even the securest of coaching deals. That one game could be this weekend, when Texas A&M plays host to Florida – with The Jimbo Referendum staring in the face of those deep-pocket Aggies boosters.
Fisher and Gators coach Dan Mullen were hired at the same time, replacing coaches who couldn’t get it done amid huge expectations. While the jobs aren’t equal (Florida is clearly the premium job), their framework is nearly identical.
Unwavering financial support, top 3 geographical recruiting footprint, rabid fan bases that die a slow death with every loss.
The difference: Mullen has the Gators trending toward a huge year behind a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (after back-to-back double-digit win seasons), and Fisher has the Aggies scrambling to find their footing with a shaky quarterback (after back-to-back unremarkable seasons).
The Alabama humiliation last weekend is one thing; everyone in the SEC is chasing the gold standard of the conference. Everyone bleeds when playing the Tide.
But losing at home this weekend to Florida, to a direct and unmistakable comparison of what happens when you hire the right coach, underscores some damaging realities for Fisher as an FBS coach.
Supporters will point to 3 quarterbacks developed by Fisher at Florida State who were first-round selections in the NFL Draft. They’ll talk about the slew of draft picks Fisher recruited at FSU, the 29-game winning streak, the 2013 national championship and a spot in the first College Football Playoff in 2014. But that’s old news.
Fisher’s Texas A&M teams are a shadow of what he had at FSU. He’s 18-10 in College Station, and 10-8 in SEC games. Sumlin, by comparison, was 15-13 in his last 18 games, and 8-10 in the SEC.
Fisher’s Aggies teams are 3-8 vs. ranked teams, 6-7 vs. the SEC West and 1-6 vs. West heavyweights Alabama, LSU and Auburn. The only win among that group was a 74-72 overtime gift over LSU (a game LSU should have won in regulation were it not for a terrible call).
More damning: without the two supernova seasons of Jameis Winston in 2013-14, Fisher’s FSU and Texas A&M teams are 29-21 vs. Power 5 teams. And this is a $75 million coach ($85 million when Sumlin’s buyout is factored in)?
God bless Jimmy Sexton, the greatest sports agent ever.
Meanwhile, we give you Mullen, who toiled for nearly a decade at Mississippi State before landing a Florida job at its lowest point since Steve Spurrier returned to his alma mater in 1990. Jim McElwain was such a bad hire in Gainesville, his team and roster was such a mess by Year 3, Florida used McElwain’s contrived story of “death threats” on social media to force him out midseason.
Mullen took a 4-8 team without a legitimate quarterback and won 21 games over the next 2 seasons. He’s 23-5 overall and 13-5 in SEC games. He 4-3 vs. AP ranked teams and 9-4 vs. the SEC East Division – admittedly a much easier division than what Fisher has dealt with over the past 2 seasons.
That’s what makes this game so important. It’s easy for Fisher to proclaim life in the West is more difficult than the East, but that argument fades with a loss to Florida. It’s easy to proclaim you’re headed in the right direction and those oil magnate boosters must be patient, but that cliché is less of a crutch if you can’t beat Florida and the guy who was hired the same season under the same circumstances.
2. The QB whisperer
Fisher built his reputation on recruiting and developing quarterbacks at LSU and Florida State.
As offensive coordinator at LSU, he got former minor league baseball player Matt Mauck to perform at an elite level and lead the Tigers to the 2003 national championship. At FSU, he developed 3 quarterbacks into first-round selections in the NFL Draft (Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, Winston).
Yet since that run of elite quarterbacks at FSU ended after the 2014 season, the lineup is less than impressive: Everett Golson, Sean Maguire, Deondre Francois, James Blackman and now Kellen Mond.
You can’t put all of the Aggies’ problems on Mond, who has played hard (and not all that poorly) despite some shaky protection – but hasn’t been distinctively different, either.
His numbers under Fisher’s tutelage are solid (48 TDs, 19 INTs), but his completion percentage still is under 60 (58.3) 2 games into his 3rd season.
And the argument that Mond isn’t Fisher’s recruit doesn’t work. If Fisher didn’t think Mond was the best option to help him win games, any of his 3 quarterback recruits from 3 recruiting classes would have played (they haven’t).
Meanwhile, there is Mullen who has accomplished more as a developer of quarterbacks than Fisher, yet doesn’t get near the attention. He, too, developed a quarterback who was the first overall pick in the NFL Draft (Alex Smith), and 2 of his quarterbacks (Smith and Tim Tebow) were first-round picks, and Dak Prescott is one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
He made an SEC quarterback out of Feleipe Franks in 2018 (when McElwain couldn’t), and then took Kyle Trask, who hadn’t started since 9th grade, and won 11 games in 2019. Trask now is an early Heisman favorite and a likely first-round selection.
“There’s a reason (Mullen) is one guy our personnel people keep talking about,” one NFL scout told me. “He knows the position, a fantastic teacher. Football is all about the quarterback – now more than ever. He’s doing it as well as anyone.”
3. The Jimbo Referendum, The epilogue
The lack of significant wins is one thing, taking control of the state of Texas is a completely different – but as important – piece of the puzzle.
At a time when Texas A&M could (and should) take control of the state of Texas in recruiting, Fisher is trading blows with bitter rival Texas on the recruiting trail – despite all of Texas’ problems.
The Longhorns haven’t been a significant factor in the national title chase for nearly a decade, yet Texas A&M hasn’t capitalized on it. Sumlin did briefly, and Fisher has had intermittent success beating the Longhorns for elite state recruits (2019 was a big haul; 2018 and 2020 were not).
According to 247sports.com, Texas A&M has only 3 commitments from the state’s top 25 in the 2021 recruiting class. The Aggies’ highest-ranked in-state commitment is No. 13 Reuben Fatheree, a 4-star tackle. (Alabama has commitments from the state’s top prospect, Tommy Brockermeyer, a 5-star tackle, and the top QB, 4-star dual-threat Jalen Milroe.)
Lose to Florida this weekend, and the areas outside the state that have helped Fisher land 2 top-10 classes (particularly, the southeast) will be impacted, too.
As important as last week’s game was for Texas A&M to show how far it is from Alabama, the Florida game is capable of pulling back the curtain on something much more revealing: Fisher may not get it done in College Station.
4. Big Orange attention
There’s no getting around what this week means to Tennessee. Playtime is over. Time to get serious.
“This is going to be big boy ball,” Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said via zoom call. “The spotlight is going to be on us.”
Ignore the Vols’ 8-game winning streak. It means they’ve done what they should do.
Beating South Carolina (twice), Missouri (twice), UAB, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Indiana isn’t exactly moving the needle. This weekend at Georgia is when it gets real for the Vols.
Tennessee hasn’t beaten Georgia since 2016 – and only after a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. Georgia is 8-2 vs. Tennessee in the past 10 games and is coming off a feel-good domination of Auburn.
The Bulldogs have found their quarterback (Stetson Bennett IV), and the defense is wicked.
“There are more Sunday guys on that defense than any other in college football,” an NFL scout told me after last weekend’s games.
This is the first of 3 prove-it games for Tennessee under coach Jeremy Pruitt. Tennessee has struggled mightily vs. its 3 major rivals, including 2 East Division rivals (a combined 3-17 in the past 20 games vs. Florida and Georgia). The Vols have lost 13 straight to Alabama.
How can this be different? One word: Guarantano.
The senior quarterback has gone from a liability Pruitt dressed down for a huge mistake in the middle of last year’s Alabama loss, to a smart, efficient manager who – and here’s the key – is staying out of trouble with poor decisions and is protecting the ball. A bonus: He’s developing a nice touch on the deep ball, something Tennessee desperately needs when those elite teams crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run and force Guarantano to beat them.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Mississippi State at Kentucky (-3)
- Tennessee at Georgia (-14)
- Alabama at Ole Miss (+24.5)
- Florida at Texas A&M (+6)
- Arkansas (+18) at Auburn
Last week: 3-2
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible player. This week: Alabama RB Najee Harris.
“I love him as a football player, and that’s important because he has some negatives. He’s tall, and he runs high. He’s not one of those guys that’s going to sneak and find a crease and hit it. He has good speed, but nothing electrifying. No suddenness. He’s not going to move the pile consistently. He’s a lot like T.J Yeldon in that sense. I’ve seen him take some big hits because of the way he runs. He’s tough, he grinds. He may not do that one thing better than anyone else, but he does a lot of things really well.
“He’ll be a very dependable back in this league. And he’s as high quality a guy as you’re going to get. He’ll be a great presence in the locker room. More and more these days, personnel folks are looking for the high character guys. Easier to deal with, and most of them have high football IQs. I love those guys; the true football players. Those guys are the glue of your team.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll — and one big thing.
1. Alabama: Hello, old friend. Good to see you’re back humiliating opponents. That new QB? A winner.
2. Georgia: This defense might be better than any Alabama defense Nick Saban and Kirby Smart ever had. Auburn averaged 1.8 ypc., and Bo Nix averaged 4.4 yards per attempt. Just, wow.
3. Florida: One’s an anomaly, two’s a trend. This Florida defense has a long way to go. They don’t cover well, and can’t get to the quarterback. A bad combination that will get exposed (again) this weekend.
4. Texas A&M: Mond is 3-10 vs. ranked teams as a starting QB, and his completion percentage has to move into the high 60s (currently 58.3) for the Aggies to upset Florida.
5. Tennessee: The run game has been building since the second half of last season. The line is stronger, and sophomore TB Eric Gray has developed into a dynamic runner.
6. Auburn: That might have been Bo Nix’s worst effort in 15 career games. Most of it was Auburn’s inability to protect, some of it was Nix’s penchant of bailing on his progressions too soon.
7. Mississippi State: This is what you get from Mike Leach: He’s so confident in what he does, he refuses to change – even when his first-year (in his offense) quarterback is staring at 8 defensive backs and making poor decisions.
8. LSU: The defense played smarter, the offense built consistency. One more week of improvement (vs. Missouri) before a critical game at Florida.
9. Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin never gets enough credit for his teaching: QB Matt Corral has gone from a loose cannon to a smart, efficient thrower. From 59% of passes completed, to 77.
10. Kentucky: Wildcats could easily be 2-0, and at the very least 1-1. These are the small problems (mistakes) Mark Stoops thought he had ironed out of his program. They’ve crept back in.
11. South Carolina: Another team that deserves better than 0-2. But at some point, we must go from talking about Will Muschamp not getting a break (at Florida and South Carolina) to his teams being better prepared to deal with adversity.
12. Missouri: Stop fooling around with QB Shawn Robinson. Connor Bazelak is the better option, even with his freshman mistakes. The upside looks tremendous.
13. Arkansas: One of the top coordinator hires in all of CFB: Hogs DC Barry Odom. Will be a head coach again soon, but until then, watch how much better the Arkansas defense becomes.
14. Vanderbilt: I don’t know how (or where) this team will score points. All season. There’s no one on the outside that scares defenses, and freshman QB Ken Seals is going to take a beating from a line that struggles to protect.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: You media boys never get it. Always saying “this is the year” Alabama gives up the SEC to someone else, and every time it’s the same thing. Get used to it, baby!
Fred: LSU took the SEC from Alabama in 2019. Since we’re clear on that, don’t jump in the deep end just yet on Alabama moving away from the pack in 2020. There were holes in the Tide defense against Texas A&M that the Aggies couldn’t take advantage of. There are offenses that could stress the Tide defense, and believe it or not, it might begin this weekend against Ole Miss. The Rebels aren’t going to beat Alabama, but my guess is we’ll be talking about some issues in the secondary for Alabama this time next week. Matt Corral can throw on time and with anticipation, and the Rebels have 2 NFL-ready receivers (Elijah Moore, Jonathan Mingo) and an NFL-ready tight end (Kenny Yeboah).
9. Numbers game: 3.4
Ed Orgeron said over and over this offseason that the strength of this LSU team is its running backs. John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price lead a group of backs that currently average 3.4 yards per carry.
So how does LSU fix that problem? Run more. That’s right, more.
Orgeron says LSU might be focused too much on the passing game (83 of 153 total plays in w games have been pass plays), and that Emery and Davis-Price need more touches. They each have 19 carries this season.
That doesn’t mean a return to the crawl ball days of Les Miles, but it does mean Orgeron wants more of a 50-50 split in run-pass play calls.
They’ve been far off that mark through 2 games. One LSU staffer says the Orgeron mandate isn’t about limiting QB Myles Brennan’s throws; it’s about setting up higher percentage throws with a strong running game.
10. Quote to note
South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn: “We’ve played two tough teams. We can’t let those two games define us. We have eight games left. If we don’t keep fighting, it could get ugly.”