Just for fun, let's entertain the best result of the Jimbo Fisher-Bobby Petrino marriage in Year 1
There’s a world in which the Jimbo Fisher-Bobby Petrino marriage is a happy one.
I’m not saying that we’re about to get a buddy cop movie or that they’re about to get each other’s face tattooed on their lower backs, but we could look up and realize that this awkward mix of giant egos actually evolved into a working relationship. It worked with Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin. Once upon a time, the late Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka formed one of the most dominant teams ever despite their heated exchanges.
Right now, the Fisher-Petrino dynamic is more like an only child who sees his or her parents come home with a new baby. In this world, Fisher is the only child (who is used to running his own offense) and Petrino is the new baby. Sure, Fisher was the one who pulled the trigger on hiring the baby. Er, Petrino. But much like the older sibling who says “I can’t wait to have a sibling,” there could still be some jealousy in the early stages in the battle for attention.
Or in this case, I suppose Fisher and Petrino could battle for credit of the offense.
That’s what’ll be on the front burner in College Station for the foreseeable future, as it should be. Fisher is allegedly relinquishing control of the offense for the first time as a head coach, and he chose to do so by hiring one of the most polarizing college coaches of the 21st century.
Lost in the shuffle of the Fisher awkwardness is that Petrino himself has been running his own offense since 2001 (that’s with a couple of gap years and he was also an offensive coordinator at 5 places before 2002). This is Petrino’s first time as an assistant since he was Tommy Tuberville’s offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2002. He had 6 stints as a head coach in that 2-decade long gap. How will he handle not having the final say?
That’s one thing that’s worth remembering. Fisher might be stepping into more of a backseat role with calling plays, but we’re being naive if we think he’s about to just put it all on Petrino’s shoulders. There’s a chance that Fisher will push for a dynamic like the one Lane Kiffin has at Ole Miss or the like the one Josh Heupel has at Tennessee. Neither is the primary play-caller. They have offensive coordinators for that. They do, however, have the final say.
I’d love to know when was the last time Petrino called a play and someone told him “no, that won’t work.” Alternatively, I’d love to know the last time Fisher had someone oppose him on any sort of in-game decision about the offense.
They’re going to disagree on things. If they agreed on everything, Fisher wouldn’t have needed to hire him.
Not to keep bringing up those Saban-Kiffin days, but their sideline interactions were so well documented because it was a shift in philosophy. What they did, however, was win the SEC each year they were together. Amidst some notable conflict, Saban bought in. And even though the divorce to FAU was messy, it was still a mostly happy marriage that Alabama fans should have fond memories of.
This A&M marriage would be a wild success if it could just fuel the Aggies to a conference championship game for the first time in the 21st century. That would keep Fisher’s buyout numbers out of the headlines. It’s unrealistic to say that’s the expectation coming off a 5-7 season. It is realistic to say that A&M should be the most improved team in the SEC, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where the Aggies rank No. 8 nationally in percentage of returning production.
I mean, there’s nowhere to go but up after last year’s cellar dweller numbers:
- PPG — 22.8 (No. 101 in FBS)
- Passing yards/game — 219.4 (No. 84 in FBS)
- Yards/pass — 6.7 (No. 96 in FBS)
- QB rating — 124.96 (No. 98 in FBS)
- Yards/play — 5.7 (No. 61 in FBS)
- Games w/ 30 points vs. FBS — 1
Those would’ve been unacceptable numbers for a program like Mizzou. They were extremely unacceptable numbers for a coach with $86 million left on his contract at the end of the season.
The best version of A&M’s offense has some shades of 2020. That group thrived off its offensive line continuity. This group returns its entire offensive line. With the surprise late announcement of Ainias Smith, it’ll also return its top 3 receivers, which is an ideal way for Conner Weigman to develop in what’s expected to be his first full year as A&M’s starter.
It’s also ideal that Weigman’s main source of offensive guidance is no longer Fisher, AKA the guy who hasn’t led a top-30 passing offense or an all-conference quarterback since Jameis Winston left for the NFL (we should also mention that no Power 5 team threw more interceptions than FSU during his last college season in 2014). No longer should A&M be held back by a lack of pre-snap motion and a lack of up-tempo series. Players can already tell the difference:
Ainias Smith on Bobby Petrino’s offense: “I’m definitely excited. A lot of tempo. A lot of speed. Hopefully a lot of touchdowns.”
— TexAgs (@TexAgs) March 20, 2023
Now compare that to Fisher’s approach to tempo:
Jimbo Fisher: “We are so caught up in tempo. Name me a tempo team that’s won a National Championship. There’s not one in the last 15 years.”
— TexAgs (@TexAgs) November 27, 2022
Um, nobody tell Fisher that Todd Monken sped up the tempo to help fuel Georgia’s repeat, Steve Sarkisian did that at Alabama in 2020 and Joe Brady implemented that at LSU in 2019. Oh, and Clemson ran plenty of up-tempo offense when it produced one of the most dominant teams of the 21st century.
So yeah, besides the past 5 national champs, yeah, Fisher is spot on!
(2017 Alabama was the last national champ that didn’t finish in the top 25 in total offensive plays run. Among those past 5 national champs, 2021 Georgia was the only national champ that didn’t rank in the top 3 in total plays, though Monken’s offense jumped to No. 3 in that category in 2022.)
That just speaks to Fisher’s outdated philosophy and why new blood was needed.
Granted, there figures to be some resistance. We could get postgame press conferences in which A&M loses and Fisher blames tempo. And to be clear, it’s not like A&M is about to start going at Ole Miss or Tennessee speeds. It might feel fast to someone like Smith, who has only known the Fisher offense.
Fisher’s pushback against running up-tempo offense was on the heels of Weigman having his most successful game as a starter, which came when the Aggies operated at a faster pace than usual in the win against LSU. So even when A&M got its best win of the season, Fisher still seemed annoyed at the suggestion that his offense needed tweaking.
Never mind the fact that Weigman ran an up-tempo scheme in high school or Fisher’s comments came after the Aggies finally hit 30 points vs. FBS competition for the first time in over a year. Also, go back to when Weigman sparked a rally in a 28-point showing against Ole Miss and you’ll see that was a much quicker offense, as well.
Nobody is saying that A&M needs to only operate out of up-tempo sets. But with Petrino, the hope is that the Aggies can use it effectively to jumpstart what’s really been a mostly lifeless offense the past 2 seasons.
Above all else, that’s this marriage working, even if it includes a few public or private arguments.
There’s a reason Fisher decided that now was the time he needed to hire an offensive coordinator like Petrino. There’s an urgency to maximize that historic 2022 recruiting class, which included Weigman. Suffering a third consecutive disappointing season and watching key pieces from that group bolt would be devastating, and it could slam any sort of Fisher-led championship window shut.
Getting back to an 8-4 regular season, but doing so with an explosive offense and one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks, would be a victory for Fisher. If we’re talking about Weigman as a likely preseason All-SEC quarterback entering 2024, Petrino will have done his job. If the Aggies have a top-5 scoring unit in the SEC, maybe we’ll even be talking about Petrino in the Broyles Award conversation (Ole Miss was No. 5 in the SEC and No. 29 nationally at 33.5 points/game).
None of that seems impossible. Whether that’s the most likely scenario is a different debate.
At the very least, we should hope for fireworks … and maybe a buddy cop movie.