First and 10: Alabama and Georgia are there. And Jimbo Fisher has Texas A&M on the way
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This is why you fork over $75 million with the vision that one day it will happen.
Not a hyperventilating hope or distant dream, but a concrete course from lifetime underachiever to – in the parlance of our Texas friends – shitkickers.
That day got a lot closer last weekend in College Station.
“It’s not a moral victory,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said of a 28-26 gut punch loss to heavyweight Clemson.
Fine. Let’s call it one gigantic step forward for a program that for decades has had the audacity of Notre Dame and the execution of Wake Forest.
You can connect every once in a while (see: Junction Boys), or, in the words of that great sage, Barry Switzer, “trick —-” your way into a couple of good seasons with a generational player (see: Johnny Manziel).
But lasting, significant change only comes with the rare coaching combination of recruiting and developing players. Most coaches are only truly proficient in one.
When you find a coach that is elite at both, you throw guaranteed cash at him and expect greatness. Or basically, what happened last weekend against Clemson.
The team Fisher inherited last December had no business being in that game in the fourth quarter. Had no business persevering from an awful touchback call on a fumble, or being a two-point conversion from heading to overtime, or landing the biggest upset of the brief season.
But there they were, this Aggies team that a season ago was a dysfunctional mess. A group devoid of both discipline and direction, and any semblance of the grit and gumption it takes to not only beat Clemson – but persevere through bad breaks and bad calls and still be in position to win the game.
There they were with quarterback Kellen Mond, a former 4-star recruit whose best performance before last weekend was playing a little pitch and catch last year against Louisiana-Lafayette. Against Clemson – and maybe the best defense in college football – he had career bests for attempts (40), completions (23) and yards (430), and had 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The most striking number of all: Mond’s average yards per attempt – the NFL’s No. 1 statistic for quarterbacks – was a whopping 10.8 vs. Clemson. Last year, it was 6.06.
There they were with wideout Kendrick Rogers, a mountain of a receiver with 4.4 speed, who, for some reason, had all of 11 catches for 99 yards last season. He had 7 for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns against Clemson.
That, everyone, is coaching – finding your best players and developing them, then putting them in position to have success and play with confidence.
They played with attitude and they played with direction. They played with purpose.
Over and over there were moments where teams of the past would’ve folded amid the adversity. This one kept coming.
“We didn’t back down,” Fisher said.
Want to know why Texas A&M found a few 10-gallon hats last December to come up with a bloated bankroll and get the only coach it wanted? Why they sat in front of Fisher with a proverbial suitcase full of cash and said we’ll pay you whatever you want and guaran-damn-tee every penny of it?
We’re two games into the 2018 season – two games into Fisher’s tenure at Texas A&M – and you already have the answer.
The days of underachieving are over.
2. Meanwhile, in Tallahassee …
When Fisher left FSU, the narrative from inside the athletic department was Fisher’s fastball had lost something.
All he cared about was the quarterbacks and calling plays. He didn’t have the pulse of the defense, and refused to fire assistant coaches who were close friends but weren’t producing.
And the most damning: He wasn’t the same coach who led the Noles to the 2013 national title, and didn’t recruit (more on that later) with the same gusto that led to every FSU starter on 2013 team landing on an NFL roster.
Forget about the fact that with a healthy QB Deondre Francois in last year’s season opener, FSU nearly beat eventual national champion Alabama. The season then went south after that loss when struggling true freshman QB James Blackman was forced to play for the injured Francois.
Francois returned this season for FSU, and while Texas A&M was standing toe to toe with Clemson, the Noles were trailing in the fourth quarter to FCS Samford – after getting embarrassed in Week 1 at home against Virginia Tech.
“(Francois) looked like a different quarterback against Virginia Tech,” an NFL scout told me. “He was hesitant, wasn’t going through progressions, wasn’t moving around the pocket and buying time. Mechanically, he was a mess.”
Those exact words could have been used for Mond during his freshman season last year. The Kellen Mond of 2017 would have imploded against Clemson
Fisher’s version of Kellen Mond is on the verge of a breakout season.
3. The Jimbo Effect, the epilogue
Recruiting had become a sore spot of sorts with FSU fans and some within the administration.
The narrative: FSU was losing elite players it hadn’t in the past, and Fisher wasn’t landing impact players and difference makers.
In the four years after winning the 2013 national title, FSU’s recruiting classes were No. 4 in the nation (2014), No. 3 (2015), No. 3 (2016) and No. 6 (2017) in the 247Sports.com rankings. The four years after winning the natty, the Noles won 40 games, and played in three major bowls (Rose, Peach, Orange).
The problem wasn’t recruiting, it was Clemson asserting itself in the ACC with a once in a program player (Deshaun Watson) in 2015-16, and with FSU playing without Francois in 2017.
So what happens when Fisher gets to Texas A&M? Despite the late start, the Aggies finish 16th in the nation last February, and are No.3 in the nation for 2019 behind Alabama and Georgia – the two teams they’re chasing in the SEC.
When you find the right coach who can recruit and develop players, you throw $75 million at him and say go win a championship.
4. Dawg Nation
The transformation is complete, and there’s no denying it: Georgia has officially become Alabama.
Stop me when you’ve heard this before: Upstart SEC team is on the verge of breaking out. They have skill players, they have the muscle on the interior lines – and then get their hearts ripped out.
Georgia did to South Carolina last weekend what Alabama has done to everyone in the SEC at one point or another since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa: gone on the road in a wild environment, and beat the ever loving snot out of a team that thinks it’s ready for primetime.
For years Alabama has been the denier of dreams. Now we welcome Georgia to the party.
Stroll into the moment, and suck the very life from it. It’s beautiful in its simplistic brutality.
A quick synopsis of future, similar situations for Georgia:
Sept. 22, at Missouri: The unbeaten Tigers with an offense averaging 40-plus points a game and confidence it hasn’t had since back-to-back trips to the SEC Championship Game.
Oct. 13, at LSU: The Red Stick will be pumped, and the Tigers might be unbeaten (depending on this week’s game vs. Auburn).
Nov. 3, at Kentucky: The Wildcats, fresh off beating Florida for the first time in 32 years, could still technically be in the SEC East Division hunt.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Vanderbilt at Notre Dame (-15)
- LSU (+10) at Auburn
- Colorado State (+19) at Florida
- Alabama (-19.5) at Ole Miss
- Marshall at South Carolina (-12.5)
Last week: 2-3.
Season: 5-5 (.500)
6. A unique season
Don’t ignore Mississippi State’s easy win at Kansas State and allow it to get lost in the mundane of two uneventful weeks to begin the season.
When you win on the road against a Power 5 team for the first time since 1995, it’s a big deal. When your quarterback returns from suspension, has more than 300 yards of total offense and the chemistry clicks, that’s a big deal. When your nation-leading tackles for loss number increases to 25, that’s a big deal.
The Bulldogs aren’t going to win the SEC West (see: Alabama, denier of dreams), but don’t be shocked if this team reaches November with a chance to set the school record for wins in a season under first year coach Joe Moorhead.
Four years ago, Dan Mullen’s best team in Starkville won 10 games and was ranked No. 1 for three weeks before losing three of its last four games. That team had two chances to reach a school-record 11 wins, and failed both times in ugly losses to Ole Miss and Georgia Tech.
This Mississippi State team might not get to Week 10 undefeated (and play on the road at Alabama like the 2014 team did), but it might have an easier road to 11 wins. The Bulldogs get Auburn and Texas A&M at home, and play LSU and Alabama on the road – and will be favored in every other game.
Split the four difficult games, and head into bowl season with a shot at 11 wins. Not a bad first year for Moorhead.
7. Gainesville, we have a problem
In the spirit of the wondrous world of Overreaction Sunday:
Let’s look at negatives first for the Florida Gators:
- Can’t stop the run.
- Safeties get lost in coverage
- Quarterback doesn’t see the field.
- Play calling has all but eliminated the team’s best offensive weapon (TB Jordan Scarlett).
- Interior lines are soft and lack the ability (or desire) to take control of a game.
And now, the positives:
The first loss to Kentucky in 32 years should have everyone on the same page: get to 6 wins. Because 6 wins means 15 extra bowl practices for young guys who haven’t been beaten down by the McElwain years and are playing out the string (because that’s coming).
The first step is this weekend against Colorado State, which last week beat Arkansas (a mirror image of the Gators in the SEC West). Lose there, and there aren’t 6 wins on the schedule.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Auburn will never be a team that can win the SEC or get to the Playoff without a quarterback that fits their system. They need a runner, like Cam (Newton) or Nick (Marshall). As much as I like (Jarrett) Stidham, he’s not a fit. Can my Tigers win big with him?
Steve: It was this game last year when Auburn realized what it was doing with Stidham wasn’t working: trying to throw play-action from a phone booth, option-oriented offense. After losing to LSU – and after Stidham completed just 9-of-26 passes – Auburn began to spread out the offense to the numbers (at times) and allow Stidham more freedom in the passing game.
He has thrown for 12 touchdowns against 4 interceptions since, and has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes. But, as one NFL scout told me this week, “he’s still not being used to get the most out of his ability.”
It no surprise that when Auburn needed it two weeks ago against Washington, the game was put in Stidham’s hands. Let’s see how much the Auburn offensive staff (including coach Gus Malzhan) has learned since the last time Auburn played LSU and Stidham struggled to simply complete passes while dealing with a ferocious pass rush.
9. Numbers game
52: Just in case this means anything to anyone: Drew Lock is on pace to throw 52 touchdown passes. Only there’s one teeny-weeny problem: the two best teams in the SEC are on the schedule (Alabama and Georgia).
The other eight games (and most likely nine, including a bowl) might just make up the difference for the guy who could be the first quarterback taken in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Lock threw an SEC-record 44 touchdown passes last season, and has 79 career touchdown passes heading into this weekend.
The SEC record for career touchdown passes is 121 by Georgia’s Aaron Murray. If Lock stays on pace and reaches 52 this season, he’ll break Murray’s career mark by two.
10. Quote to Note
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, whose unbeaten Commodores play at Notre Dame this week: “The best football still hasn’t been played. I’m not being greedy. I’m just asking our guys to grab exactly what’s out there to be had.”