Don't look now, but the Aggies are coming
It took a little longer than expected. It also took a little bit longer than it should’ve for some to realize it.
But yes, the Jimbo Fisher version of Texas A&M is indeed here, and it’s not going anywhere.
Fresh off a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory after narrowly missing out on a Playoff spot, the Aggies are likely going to finish as a top-4 team in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 1939. That’s why you pay a coach $75 million guaranteed.
Check that. Don’t try that at home, kids. Paying $75 million guaranteed for a coach is still not for the faint of heart.
But in College Station, the investment in Fisher is paying off in a major way. Eight consecutive wins to end a season is 1 thing. Winning 7 in a row by double digits is another.
(Let’s not forget that the morning of the Orange Bowl, the College GameDay crew claimed that the Aggies “only played in close games.”)
Doing that against all Power 5 teams is an almost unheard of accomplishment, especially in the SEC West. Doing that knowing what was being said after another embarrassing blowout loss to Alabama made the Aggies’ resurrection all the more impressive.
I wrote after that game that “we needed to stop making excuses for Jimbo Fisher.” Go back and read this post-Alabama loss excerpt:
Here’s a thought — let’s stop making excuses for Fisher at A&M.
I know. I’ve heard them all.
“But A&M lost all of its receivers.”
“But A&M had 6 guys opt out.”
“But A&M faced such a tough schedule last year.”
“But if Ainias Smith had just not dropped that ball on third down … ”
If Smith caught that ball, A&M would’ve magically beat Alabama? If you want to tell yourself that, go ahead. Make another excuse for why Fisher should be let off the hook for not developing talent to stay on the field with the SEC’s elite.
Three months later, I’m doing a complete 180. Fisher showed the college football world why he’s among the best in the sport. All he did was put his head down and go to work. The Aggies found their identity with a smash-mouth offensive line, a handful of versatile, dynamic backfield weapons, a smart veteran quarterback who converted third downs in his sleep, an extremely reliable pass-catching tight end and an elite run defense with one of the best defensive coordinators in the sport.
Simple enough, right?
A&M might not have the exact same identity moving forward with 4 seniors on the offensive line — the Orange Bowl group had a combined 156 starts — though it’s hard not to be bullish on A&M even if the Maroon Goons look significantly different in 2021. As of this writing, we don’t know the status of Kellen Mond yet. Not to diminish what the accomplished senior did in what was easily his best season as the Aggies’ signal-caller, but Fisher is plenty capable of developing either Haynes King or Zach Calzada into a capable SEC starter.
Whoever the Aggies’ 2021 starter is will have a bevy of proven weapons to work with. That’s probably an understatement.
The 3-headed rushing attack is special. Between 2-time 1,000-yard rusher Isaiah Spiller, the ever-versatile Ainias Smith and Orange Bowl MVP Devon Achane, the Aggies are suddenly stockpiled with elite backs. It’s probably a good sign when the dude who enters the night as your fourth-leading rusher can pull off game-changing runs like this in a New Year’s 6 Bowl:
WHAT A RUN.
DEVON ACHANE 76 YARDS FOR SIX.
— ESPN (@espn) January 3, 2021
Did you see that guy blocking on the edge? That was Jalen Wydermyer. You know, the guy who figures to start 2021 on a bunch of preseason All-America teams. Wydermyer was, ironically enough, in the same 2019 recruiting class as No. 1 overall tight end Baylor Cupp, who has yet to play in a game because of a pair of season-ending injuries. Assuming that doesn’t happen a third time in 2021, that has all the makings of a special duo at the tight end position. That’s something that’s actually used at A&M.
Another pass-catcher who suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, Camron Buckley, announced that he’s returning in 2021. Buckley would’ve been the leading returning receiver for 2020 after the Aggies lost their top 3 wideouts (2 to early NFL Draft departures and 1 to an opt-out).
Don’t forget that Caleb Chapman, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the midst of a 151-yard game in that season-turning win against Florida, will be back. So will the Aggies’ top 2020 wide receiver, Chase Lane. Including Hezekiah Jones and Jalen Preston, 10 of the 11 A&M players who caught a pass in 2020 are set to return in 2021.
Again, whoever starts at quarterback is absolutely loaded with proven skill-player talent.
The Aggies’ somewhat abnormal offense for college football in 2020 was under-appreciated. But the area where A&M probably didn’t get enough respect nationally was in the front 7. There’s talent returning there, too.
Defensive lineman Jayden Peavy, who had 5 tackles for loss, announced he’s taking advantage of the free year of eligibility and returning in 2021. Fellow defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal might’ve been the most improved player on the entire roster, and he’ll be back next year, as well. The Aggies also return one of the league’s top safeties in Demani Richardson.
Of course, there will likely be some major pieces to replace. First-team All-SEC defensive lineman Bobby Brown should have significant next-level interest, as will leading tackler Buddy Johnson. If Myles Jones doesn’t take advantage of the extra year of eligibility, well, we saw the Aggies struggle without him in coverage in the Orange Bowl.
There will inevitably be pieces to replace. Duh. Welcome to being an elite team. Go ask Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State about how much production they lose every year.
A&M isn’t on that level yet because of 1 season, but 2021 will be telling. It appears that 2020 established the exact type of foundation that Aggie fans have been desperate for in the post-Johnny Manziel era. There was no November collapse like the annual occurrences that plagued the Kevin Sumlin era. Even the true road game struggles we saw in the first 2-plus years of the Fisher era — they started off 2-7 in those games — were nowhere to be found in 2020.
It’s true that success in this division can be fleeting. Go ask 2019 LSU or 2013 Auburn about that. Even 2015 Ole Miss and 2014 Mississippi State know what that’s about. Aggie fans who experienced the high of 2012 don’t need any reminders of that.
But Fisher’s team took it to a new gear after it was written off. It looked heads and shoulders above any non-Alabama team in the division, especially at the line of scrimmage. With all of that production returning and a third consecutive top-7 class signed, there will be a new set of expectations in Aggieland. There won’t be any more sneaking up on teams. Preseason top-10 status is all but guaranteed. It’s been 28 years since A&M last started off in the top 10 AND finished in the top 10.
Now is your time, Jimbo.
After Fisher put the finishing touches on his first New Year’s 6 Bowl victory at A&M and escaped the subsequent Gatorade bath, he made sure to send 1 more message to the college football world. It wasn’t about A&M’s Playoff snub, nor was it anything related to his $75 million contract. Fisher’s message atop the Orange Bowl stage was met with cheers from the Aggie faithful who saluted the 2020 team in Miami.
“Let me tell you this; we ain’t done yet.”
Dare I say, he might be on to something.