Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Texas A&M. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every SEC East team.

Not all 8-win seasons are created equal.

If I told an A&M fan last year that Jimbo Fisher would become the first Nick Saban disciple to take down the G.O.A.T., they would’ve kissed me and blessed my future children.

(The irony is that in this Crystal Ball last year, I did predict that. Thankfully, I didn’t get kissed by strangers.)

From that standpoint, 8-4 was easier to stomach this time. It wasn’t a season that lived up to top-10 preseason hype, which could’ve been partially because of the early-season injury to Haynes King. Zach Calzada wasn’t the answer, well, except for his career-day against Alabama. At least not with Jimbo Fisher, who watched a preseason top-10 team fall apart after losing its starting quarterback for the 2nd time in 5 years.

But was 2021 a missed opportunity? After all, the Aggies had coordinators in Year 4, they produced the nation’s No. 3 defense and they had the likes of Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane and Jalen Wydermyer making plays on offense. The fact that those things didn’t even yield a winning record in SEC play was, in many ways, a letdown.

Whatever the case, A&M finished the season with exactly 8 wins for the 5th time in the Playoff era. That was after Fisher signed an extension worth nearly $95 million. After the 2022 season, he’ll still be owed $86 million, so any question about him being on the hot seat is answered right there.

Will Fisher get the Aggies closer to finally breaking through in 2022? Let’s take a peek into the crystal ball.

Will this be the best version of Jimbo Fisher?

The summer spat with Nick Saban was one for the ages. Saban saying that A&M “bought” its historic 2022 recruiting class prompted a version of Fisher that we’ve never seen. At least not publicly. He fired back at Saban by calling him a “narcissist” and claiming that the Alabama coach’s words were “despicable.”

Does that mean Fisher is about to turn a new page and get back to his place as one of the elite coaches in the sport? Or will Fisher’s response be more confident than his team’s 2022 vibe? That remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Fisher isn’t just sitting back collecting that lucrative paycheck.

In the past 5 seasons, Fisher has 7 wins against AP Top 25 teams. He’s set to face 4 preseason AP Top 25 teams, which doesn’t include matchups against Florida, LSU, MSU and Auburn, all of whom got at least 14 votes in the poll. In other words, 2/3 of that schedule is against teams with legitimate expectations heading into 2022. Fisher holding his own and getting to a New Year’s 6 bowl is by no means a given, No. 6 preseason ranking aside.

A fiery press conference isn’t going to determine Fisher’s 2022 potential. His ability to make adjustments — he shuffled 3 offensive coaches at the start of fall camp — and develop some key areas of need will be what determines if another 8-4 season is on the way.

Haynes King vs. Max Johnson

You could make a case that this is the most intriguing quarterback battle in the country. You had A&M’s QB1 to start 2021, King, taking on Johnson, AKA the guy who delivered the most casual 27-6 TD-INT ratio in college football history for LSU last year. Does Fisher favor experience or does he roll with the still relatively unknown potential of King?

With Fisher, his mindset with quarterbacks is like a 1-cut running back. He picks his lane and he goes. He puts all of his time and energy into making a starter work. In this instance, though, he’s got a pair of 2020 signal-callers with very different skill sets. Johnson isn’t the athlete that King is and King doesn’t throw the ball that Johnson does.

Neither really looked up for the task in the spring game, which Fisher said was partially because of the wind. Take that for what it is. Fisher was probably always going to need a transfer portal quarterback because Zach Calzada transferred following his disappointing season in relief of King. On top of that, Eli Stowers switched to tight end so A&M’s options without a transfer quarterback would’ve been King coming off his injury or true freshman Conner Weigman.

As much as Fisher loves Weigman, there’s no way Fisher wanted to enter 2022 with so little depth at the position, especially after he watched 2 of those past 5 seasons collapse because of an injury to his starting quarterback. In other words, Johnson transferring to A&M doesn’t necessarily mean he’s locked into a starting job. It was a nice packaged deal that Fisher got with Max’s younger brother, No. 1 2022 tight end Jake Johnson.

Whatever the case, Fisher hasn’t had an all-conference quarterback since Jameis Winston. Assuming that an upgrade at the position is automatic is premature, no matter who owns the “QB1” title throughout 2022.

DJ Durkin has talent, but he has a major question for his defense

Mike Elko left A&M to take the head gig at Duke. That means 1 of the 5 best defensive minds in the sport is gone. Hence, why Fisher poached Durkin from Ole Miss after he led a significant improvement in Year 2 in Oxford. Durkin led Ole Miss to the nation’s No. 51 defense and played a crucial role in delivering the program’s best regular season win total ever.

That’s the good news for A&M. Well, that and the Aggies return the ever-versatile, ever-underrated Antonio Johnson, who will play more safety than slot corner in Durkin’s defense. The other good news? A&M signed 4 5-star defensive linemen in that aforementioned historic 2022 class. The Aggies are loaded with talent up front.

So what’s the bad news? Experience in the trenches is lacking in a big way. DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy, Michael Clemons and Tyree Johnson are all gone. That group was a massive reason A&M finished with the nation’s No. 3 defense. They were also a massive reason the Aggies’ season didn’t fall apart with an offense that averaged just 25 points per game against Power 5 foes.

Durkin improved Ole Miss’ defense, but he didn’t lead a top-100 run defense. That’s a major question mark for the Aggies. The sooner that 5-star defensive line talent can look the part, the better.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Sam Houston State (W)

An A&M passing game with new pieces galore instead leans on Layden Robinson and the Maroon Goons to get going. Devon Achane spends the second half in sweats and we see a whole lot of true freshman Le’Veon Moss down the stretch in a blowout victory.

Week 2: vs. Appalachian State (W)

Never sleep on Appalachian State. Ever. Fifteen years removed from stunning Michigan in historic fashion, will the Mountaineers pull off another top-5 stunner? Not this time. After a back and forth start led by the arm of the ageless Chase Brice, an App. State team that ranks No. 91 in FBS in percentage of returning production runs out of gas and gives way to the deep A&M ground attack.

Week 3: vs. Miami (W)

This should be a 4-quarter game. If that new-look A&M front cannot pressure Tyler Van Dyke, he can put a whole lot of pressure on the Aggies secondary in their new system. I expect Miami to give A&M everything it can handle. But this is where having a veteran play-maker like Ainias Smith proves to be an asset. He scores a receiving touchdown and Miami’s 28-year-old punter makes the mistake of punting to Smith, who breaks free for a pivotal second-half score. A&M survives a scare.

Week 4: vs. Arkansas in Arlington (L)

Two in a row? Really? Last year, I watched A&M’s first-time starter be totally perplexed by Barry Odom’s defense. Maybe that’ll be King. Perhaps it’ll even be Johnson, who oddly got yanked after starting that game against Arkansas last year. Either way, I don’t think the Aggies will have enough success sustaining scoring drives. A&M’s talented, but extremely young defensive line will be on its heels throughout the afternoon in what’ll serve as a “welcome to the SEC” game against that Arkansas offensive line.

Week 5: at Mississippi State (W)

There’s a world in which Achane gets contained by the MSU front and A&M is forced to make crucial third-down conversions through the air. But the danger of Achane is that it only takes a small crease for him to do his damage. A long Achane touchdown quiets the cowbells and Will Rogers’ comeback bid comes up short when Antonio Johnson steps in front of a pass over the middle.

Week 6: at Alabama (L)

Last year in my Crystal Ball series, I called for A&M to upset Alabama (I also totally backed off the pick the week of the game). Do I think that the Aggies run it back? Nah. Not this time. I think Alabama does everything in its power to make sure Fisher doesn’t get the last laugh after this summer’s war of words. Defensively, this is where we see the Tide put the clamps on. Instead of a balanced A&M attack, Will Anderson and Dallas Turner force A&M into some obvious throwing situations, which sets the wheels in motion for a blowout victory.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: at South Carolina (W)

A&M is going to need Edgerrin Cooper to be an All-SEC player this year. It’s as simple as that. On this day, the A&M linebacker harasses Spencer Rattler. An interception and a strip sack both set up turnovers that flip the field and quiet the home crowd. A&M slows the pace with the ground game and prevents South Carolina’s offense from getting into rhythm. Achane busts loose for a late score to put a much-needed road win for A&M on ice.

Week 9: vs. Ole Miss (W)

I’m calling it. College GameDay will be in the house to see an unbeaten, top-5 Ole Miss squad face off against a fringe-Top 25 A&M squad. The battle of Nick Saban disciples — call it the “Durkin Bowl” if you don’t want everything to be about Saban — has huge implications for a potential New Year’s 6 bowl. So who makes the difference? Finally, it’s Evan Stewart. The A&M true freshman receiver has the breakout game that Aggie fans have been waiting for. He torches the Ole Miss secondary twice. Instead of Lane Kiffin sending his play sheet into the sky, he fires his visor into the turf at the end of a frustrating offensive showing in College Station.

Week 10: vs. Florida (L)

If you cannot force Anthony Richardson into some bad decisions, he’s going to make you pay. That’s exactly what happens in what turns out to be a frustrating letdown for A&M and a monumental lift for the visiting Gators. After an emotional victory against Ole Miss, we watch A&M’s offense stall at too many key moments. Rashad Torrence picks off a pair of A&M passes and takes one of them back to the house. Billy Napier gets his biggest win to date.

Week 11: at Auburn (W)

Nah, I don’t think we’ll get to see Zach Calzada against his former team. I think Robby Ashford will have stepped into the starting quarterback role by this time with Bryan Harsin scrambling to find some late-season answers. But once again, the defense can’t stop a prolific rushing attack. Achane breaks away for a pair of long touchdown runs and down a score late, Ashford can’t put together a comeback drive with his arm.

Week 12: vs. UMass (W)

I’m gonna make a not-so-bold prediction that Stewart is going to love Don Brown lining up a single-high safety to try and defend the Aggies. A&M goes to the air to fly pass a cellar dweller UMass squad.

Week 13: vs. LSU (L)

I get the feeling that an LSU team with nothing to lose will play with its hair on fire in College Station. I don’t know who’ll be starting at quarterback for either side. But this is a game where LSU’s pass-catchers shine. Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. put pressure on the A&M secondary, which doesn’t get a whole lot of help from its young defensive line. Instead of the Aggies winning and having a chance at a New Year’s 6 bowl, LSU pulls off the upset for the second consecutive year.

2022 projection: 8-4 (4-4), 3rd in SEC West


Yep. Another 8-4 season. Another year in which November lacks any intrigue for an SEC West crown. Another year in which Fisher endures Kevin Sumlin comps.

That, in my opinion, is what awaits. I’m not holding my breath on A&M having a top-20 offense, and I think it’s inevitable that the defense takes a step back with so many new faces at key spots. Maybe King becoming a star would make me rethink that. It was at this time last year that I declared he was the ultimate X-factor, though that was because I loved the known commodities around him.

Still, though. When have we ever talked about a true freshman class stepping into the SEC and becoming the difference for a potential Playoff team? It doesn’t happen. That’s not to say we won’t see some stars emerge. I think Walter Nolen and Stewart should both have moments that make A&M fans giddy about the future. But in this conference, and specifically in this division, the margin for error is slim. A&M gets some painful reminders of that.

Let’s be clear. This is all about talent acquisition, which the Aggies are doing at historic levels. The second that A&M is indeed in a national championship hunt, it’ll make the conference that much more interesting. 

But all signs point to that reality being at least a year away.