Texas A&M should improve, but let's not get ahead of ourselves in Year 2 of the Jimbo Fisher era
In theory, it’s an easy jump to make.
We like to do this thing with marquee coaches where we assume that the Year 2 jump is imminent. Don’t get me wrong. There’s merit to it. Nick Saban was unranked at the end of Year 1 at Alabama, and in Year 2, the Crimson Tide went into the SEC Championship undefeated. Kirby Smart was unranked at the end of Year 1 at Georgia and in Year 2, the Dawgs were a play from winning the national championship.
You could even go back to Urban Meyer at Florida, where he went from a 5-3 team in the SEC in Year 1 to national champs in Year 2.
So perhaps the expected Year 2 jump has something to do with the 21st century examples we’ve seen in the SEC. And perhaps it’s also just based on the belief that a coach has more roster control and with a full recruiting cycle under their belts, it’s no longer about just making the best of whatever situation they inherited from their predecessor.
All of those thoughts come to mind when I think about Texas A&M in Year 2 of the Jimbo Fisher era.
I get it. The Aggies are a program with a ton of momentum. Fisher is closing in on potentially A&M’s highest-rated class of the recruiting rankings era. They’re No. 4 entering Signing Day next Wednesday. The Aggies clinched their ninth win — the most since Johnny Manziel was in College Station — by pummeling N.C. State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. They have a returning starting quarterback who showed plenty of promise, especially during the 4-game winning streak to close the season.
And just in case that wasn’t enough, they have 1 of 5 active coaches with a ring (Les Miles and Mack Brown are back, y’all). Of course a team with a massive fan base is going to be fired up.
Perspective should be on the Aggies’ side. They earned the right to be considered one of the trendy teams on the rise. In all likelihood, they’ll be improved in 2019.
But before we get carried away by predicting that they’ll win the SEC West and or make a Playoff run in Year 2, let’s pump the brakes.
Consider that my way of prematurely dousing preseason fire A&M takes with a bucket of cold water. I’ll roll my eyes every time I see someone predict A&M will make the Playoff, not because I don’t believe in Fisher. I do believe that Fisher was a dream hire. I wouldn’t have given him a blank check like Scott Woodward did, but I certainly loved the hire given where A&M was at the end of 2017.
I just have major questions about how a roster that lost a ton of production is going to suddenly make that massive Year 2 jump with that schedule.
Let’s start with the roster because yes, while Kellen Mond is back, offensive MVPs Trayveon Williams and Jace Sternberger are not, and neither is the valuable offensive lineman staple Erik McCoy.
By the way, friends don’t let friends tell each other that Williams was just a system back:
Sure, the young receivers like Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers flashed some major promise and could take a significant step up in 2019. But guys who rack up 2,000 yards from scrimmage and All-American tight ends don’t grow on trees.
And defensively, there are some significant questions. The Aggies’ 6 leading tacklers are gone. That’s from a group that’s strength was stopping the run (A&M was No. 3 in FBS against the run). If A&M is going to improve, it’ll have to be because a young secondary that was gashed improves from its No. 98 pass defense.
The good news is that Fisher kept coveted defensive coordinator Mike Elko on board. Without him, it’d be fair to assume that the offense would have a ton of pressure on it to light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis. It still might.
Considering all of those personnel hurdles that A&M has to overcome just to maintain its 2018 pace, one can and should question how difficult a Playoff push will be with a gauntlet schedule ahead.
In case you somehow haven’t seen it yet, the 2019 slate is a nightmare. In the same year that the Aggies have to travel to face defending national champion Clemson, they also have a matchup at Georgia. That’s on top of facing a typical West schedule, which still has the likes of preseason top-10 teams Alabama and LSU.
Nobody has a more difficult road slate in America than A&M. Going to Clemson, Georgia and LSU won’t be fun, especially for a team that had major issues on the road in recent memory. For all the praise the Aggies got for improving in Year 1 of the Fisher era, they only won 1 true road game. And with all due respect to South Carolina, they weren’t exactly on Clemson, Georgia or LSU’s level in terms of talent or road atmosphere.
Does that mean history is destined to repeat itself? No, but let’s also remember that even if A&M somehow goes 2-2 in those matchups against Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and LSU, that’s still likely going to warrant either Alabama or LSU losing 2 conference games in order for the Aggies to win the division. Fair or not, I’m still of the belief that the first 2-loss team to make the Playoff will at least be a division winner.
The reason this is worth bringing up in early February is because the buzz at A&M is going to be off the charts. The believers will point to how close the Aggies played Clemson last year — even though the Tigers were a much different team after Trevor Lawrence took over — and how it was a 1-possession game the last time Alabama went to College Station to face Mond when he was a struggling true freshman in 2017.
But with the schedule and the roster depth not being at an elite level yet, I’m not calling for that significant Year 2 jump. Maybe Year 3 could be the year if Mond returns and if Fisher has a couple of top-5 recruiting classes on campus. The 2020 schedule also looks much more favorable with a home game against Colorado and crossovers against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
For now, though, let’s stick to 2019. And while we’re at it, let’s stick to some conservative expectations for Year 2.