As I often do, I was scrolling through the USA Today database of FBS coach salaries the other day when I had a dumb realization.

I totally forgot that A&M still has $60 million left to pay Jimbo Fisher.

That’s what happens when you sign a coach to a 10-year deal for $75 million guaranteed. It’s like you’re trying to climb the Empire State Building and you’re only on the 12th floor.

Granted, in 2018 the idea of having Fisher locked in for a decade wasn’t as daunting as climbing one of the world’s tallest buildings. Once upon a time, we all laughed at A&M for thinking it could somehow poach Fisher from Florida State. To then-A&M athletic director Scott Woodward’s credit, he got the last laugh there. He shelled out an unprecedented contract — in terms of guaranteed money — to land one of the very few active coaches with a ring.

A little more than 2 years later, there are mixed reviews about Fisher’s start at A&M. On one hand, the guy delivered the best season of the post-Johnny Manziel era, and that was in his first year in College Station. Finishing No. 16 in the AP Top 25 was a solid place to start. Fisher avoided the late-season collapse, too, which was something Kevin Sumlin struggled with.

On the other hand, a 9-7 mark in SEC play is pretty pedestrian for a coach making $75 million guaranteed. This past year, A&M’s best regular-season victory was at home against 6-win Mississippi State. A 7-win regular season was a bit of an afterthought because a grueling schedule tempered expectations.

Relative to the expectations of when he took over — a program with 1 season of double-digit wins in the previous 19 years isn’t in the same class as the sport’s elite programs — Fisher hasn’t been considered a disappointment. He also hasn’t convinced the college football world that $60 million guaranteed left on that deal is undoubtedly a good thing.

But in Year 3, that’s all about to change.

This is a defining year for Fisher in a variety of ways. Nobody expected him to overtake Nick Saban in Year 1, and in Year 2, the schedule made it so that 8 wins wasn’t considered a massive disappointment.

In Year 3? There’s no excuse. Nope. Not with that check. Not with that schedule.

If Fisher really is the elite coach he was paid to be, now is the time when he takes that next step. If there was ever a year for him to show that he’s on Alabama and LSU’s level, 2020 is it.

Both programs are replacing their once-in-a-generation quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Fisher is in Year 3 with Kellen Mond. All signs point to Mond starting as a 1st- or 2nd-team All-SEC selection. His development feels like it’s directly related to whether A&M moves into the college football elite. Mond has all the skills — the arm, the familiarity in the system, the legs, etc. — to show that he’s one of the 10 best signal-callers in college football. Whether Fisher can help get him to that level remains to be seen.

Mond, in 5 games against teams who finished in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 last season, averaged:

  • 58% passing
  • 240 passing yards
  • 1.4 total touchdowns

Not terrible, right?

But look a little closer and there are some troubling stats. And I’m not just referring to the 0-5 record. Mond averaged 5.9 yards per attempt in those games. A&M only averaged 15.6 points in those games. Oh, and the Aggies only scored 4.4 points per 1st half. The Alabama game was the only time they had a touchdown in the 1st half.

Even worse is the stat that I always bring up with A&M and whether it has the talent to be elite. In those 5 games, the Aggies played 300 minutes of football … and led for just 7:42 of that time.

Now is that all on Mond? No. Injuries in the ground game made A&M far too 1-dimensional at times, and far too often it felt like the only way the offense moved was Mond fitting the ball into extremely tight windows. A&M’s receivers could’ve done a better job of getting separation, and Fisher could have done a better job of scheming guys open. That’s not easy to do when 1/3 of the regular season schedule is legitimate national title contenders.

That, of course, doesn’t appear to be the case in 2020. In A&M’s first 10 games, Auburn is the only team who won more than 6 regular-season games:

  • vs. Abilene Christian
  • vs. North Texas
  • vs. Colorado
  • vs. Arkansas (in Dallas)
  • at Mississippi State
  • vs. Fresno State
  • at Auburn
  • at South Carolina
  • vs. Ole Miss
  • vs. Vanderbilt

It sets up to be the easiest schedule of any SEC team even with the 2 matchups to end the year at Alabama and vs. LSU. At least that’s how it’s being viewed right now.

If Fisher isn’t going into that Nov. 21 game at Alabama with SEC West chances still alive, something has gone horribly wrong. Maybe Mond got hurt. Perhaps the Aggies lost 5 starters in the front 7 due to injury. Whatever the case, there won’t be an excuse for Fisher in Year 3.

His identity is now engrained into the program. He signed the No. 4 class in his first full recruiting cycle in 2019, and he signed the No. 6 class in his second cycle. He’s got as favorable of a schedule as he’ll ever have in the SEC with the conference’s most-experienced quarterback.

This won’t be like his first year when he got an ovation from A&M fans for taking Clemson down to the wire in a home loss. There are no moral victories in College Station. Actual victories (probably 10 or 11) are the only thing that’ll get A&M to its first BCS/New Year’s 6 Bowl in the 21st century.

What if that doesn’t happen? It’s not like Fisher is going anywhere with roughly $52 million still guaranteed after this season.

But that’s when those recruiting classes will start to slip. That’s when the real buyer’s remorse will start to kick in. That’s when we’ll wonder if that historically-dominant 2013 season at Florida State was an unrepeatable feat for Fisher. Those are the expectations that come with $75 million guaranteed.

And if Fisher does meet some high expectations for 2020, well, let’s just say the Empire State Building won’t look nearly as tall.