Sports

The Unprecedented Badness of Texas A&M

College football has never seen a debacle like this.

Fisher in headset on the sidelines looking stunned as his players look downcast in uniform behind him
Head coach Jimbo Fisher in the first half of the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Kyle Field, on Oct. 29 in College Station, Texas. Tim Warner/Getty Images

It is a great challenge to find something new in college football. Something truly new. This sport is a big one, with more than 150 years of history and hundreds of programs operating at any given time. When an event feels unprecedented, it almost never truly is. One team’s problem in 2022 was another team’s problem in 1908 or 1968 or 1998 or 2008.

What is happening in College Station, Texas, is new. It’s new because this era of the sport is new, with frequent transfers and the ability for players to take money from third parties. It’s new because, in this fresh moment in roster building, Texas A&M has set itself apart in acquiring talent. Recruiting ratings are only about 20 years old, but A&M’s 2022 signing class was the best ever by that inexact science.

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It would be a massive understatement to say that A&M’s on-field product this season has not lived up to those ratings. The Aggies’ loss to Auburn on Saturday night gave them seven defeats, making them the first SEC team eliminated from bowl contention. To put that in perspective: Vanderbilt, which had lost 26 SEC games in a row before Saturday, is still in contention to go bowling.

Recruiting the top class is not supposed to precede doom. In the recruiting ratings era, no team has ever signed the best class and fallen even to a .500 record, much less below it. And so, for historical purposes, the three-win Aggies are a cautionary tale, a reminder that the floor can fall all the way out from under anyone, no matter the eliteness of their recruiting operation or the resume of their head coach.

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For A&M’s purposes, the meaning of this nightmare season might take a while to put together. That is because, in falling so flat after such a historic recruiting run, the Aggies have found college football’s rarest thing: uncharted waters.

The story starts with Jimbo Fisher. Since coming over from Florida State before the 2018 season, he has held up part of his deal (signing good players) but not the biggest part of it (winning lots of games with those players). He beat Alabama in 2021 and got A&M to within one ranking spot of the College Football Playoff in a COVID-addled 2020 season. Otherwise—and overall, judging by his 37­­–21 record in College Station—he’s been like any number of his fired predecessors. The difference is, he’s making a whole lot more money than any of them ever did, and with that and his recruiting success, he’s operating under even higher expectations.

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Coaching salaries have been ballooning steadily for decades, but when A&M lured Fisher from Tallahassee, it was a watershed moment. He signed a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed deal, the biggest a coach had ever gotten. He got a hefty extension in 2021 that reinflated what was already a huge buyout in the event the school wanted to fire him. (It would be about $86 million after this season, four times the biggest buyout a school has ever paid a coach.)

Some of Fisher’s peers have surpassed his deal of late, and even some of his non-peers, with accomplishments well short of Fisher’s 2013 national title at FSU, have gotten into his tax bracket. Fisher is one of only five active head coaches with a national title to his name, the others being Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, and North Carolina’s Mack Brown (who won his at Texas).* His contract is arguably less ridiculous than a few others in the sport right now. But it is still massive, and getting rid of Fisher would be expensive even in the context of a booming buyout-industry complex. That anyone even wonders aloud about A&M canning Fisher is a sign not only of the times in a sport where nobody is ever satisfied, but also of A&M’s largesse and Fisher’s huge underperformance. There’s no road map of analogous situations to follow here.

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So, what’s gone wrong for Fisher in College Station? The easiest problem to identify has been the Aggies’ offense.

In the past decade, most of college football has moved toward a shotgun spread that relies in some part on run/pass options, where the quarterback makes one or two reads of the defense and gets to make lots of simple throws. The sport has gone this direction because playing QB is hard, and finding straightforward yards is the best way to put up gaudy numbers. (This year’s Tennessee Volunteers are a perfect illustration.)

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Fisher, who runs the A&M offense himself without the help of a coordinator, likes to play a different way. He doesn’t run many RPOs and is not much for screens or other short passes around the line of scrimmage. His calling card is an offense that relies on precise timing between a QB and his receivers downfield. When this system works well, it’s a thing of abject beauty. The last time it clicked for Fisher was in 2013 and 2014, when he won his national title with Jameis Winston and made the inaugural playoff the next year. Since then, Fisher’s offenses have trended toward mediocrity as he’s failed to find a QB who can pilot the ship at a level even approximating what Winston used to do. College QBs and receivers are sloppy, and Fisher demands they be sharper than many can handle. The result: A&M is 82nd in Offensive SP+, an opponent-adjusted efficiency metric by ESPN’s Bill Connelly. The Aggies are 77th in yards per play and 108th in points per game.

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Fisher has faced roughly a million questions about whether he might give up play-calling duties, hire an offensive coordinator, or make some other wholesale change. His stock answer is to signal openness to changing and then continue doing exactly as he’s been doing. Fisher may not be the most stubborn coach in college football, but he is pretty damn stubborn. He’s won a national title with this brand of offense, so it makes sense that it’d be hard to shift from it.

A&M has been a strong recruiter for a while, certainly strong enough that it shouldn’t fail to make a bowl. But it’s been at supernova recruiting levels for only one signing class, and true freshmen take time to become contributors (unless they are LSU’s Harold Perkins, who came out of the recruiting womb as a fully formed version of former Aggie Von Miller). A&M has had to contend with absurd roster attrition this year, too. The offense entered the year with two established stars. One of them (receiver Ainias Smith) has missed most of the season with an injury and the other (running back Devon Achane) missed the Auburn game himself. The breakout freshman of the year, receiver Evan Stewart, missed a game to suspension, as have several of his freshman classmates. A&M has played three different QBs due to a mix of ineffectiveness and injury. Basically an entire lineup’s worth of players missed a loss to Florida when the flu made its way through the team. It is hard to price in how many losses A&M has taken as a result of all these issues, but it’s not zero. In most programs, it would be more than fair to toss out 2022’s results and take a mulligan.

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That level of grace doesn’t feel quite right for Fisher, though. For one thing, mega-elite recruiting should be a buffer against significant roster chaos, even granting that what A&M has dealt with this year has been unusual. (Alabama, for example, was playing a backup QB instead of an injured Heisman Trophy winner the night it beat A&M. That game ended when Fisher called a difficult timing route in the Alabama end zone and it didn’t work out.) For another, Fisher hired one of the most despicable figures in the sport’s recent history, ex-Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin, to be his defensive coordinator. Hiring Durkin amounts to a plea to be judged only on your wins and losses, because apparently nothing else matters.

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A&M is also a famously blustery school whose boosters and administrators talk and spend a big game, and both coach and school did plenty to raise expectations before this season. When Saban accused A&M of buying its recruiting class in the spring, Fisher responded not just with a denial but by calling a press conference straight out of pro wrestling. Fisher’s athletic director compared Saban to “an emperor who loses their dynasty” and said that Alabama’s coach had felt “threatened” by A&M’s emergence. It was quite a chesty retort, given that Saban is the best coach of all time and Fisher had never beaten him until last year.

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A&M’s recruiting remains a reason for optimism, even though 2023’s still-not-final class is ranked in the 20s nationally rather than No. 1. A&M has enough talent in its program right now that things could get much better soon. As LSU has shown this year, it doesn’t have to take a long time to rev things up even in the SEC West. Fisher could load up on transfers next year or simply get more out of the players already on his roster, and the team could (and likely will) improve rapidly.

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There’s a flip side to that hope, though. Player movement is more fluid than ever, and there’s no way of knowing that A&M’s prized 2022 signing class holds together over the next few years, much less becomes the nucleus of a championship contender. Any team can suffer an instant transfer exodus. It does not seem like a great sign for program cohesion that A&M’s had a couple of big rounds of freshman suspensions, or that an important receiver has gone public to say that Fisher’s staff benched him for wearing arm sleeves.

So, what should A&M do about all this? The answer is probably not to fire Fisher. That would cost an astronomical sum, and it would not be a great commentary on the state of college football to watch a school pay the better part of $100 million just to pin the tail on the donkey of another coaching hire. A&M has put a lot of eggs in Fisher’s basket and has been rummaging for decades to find the coach who can carry it to the top of the sport. It is a college football truism, and only about one-third a joke, that A&M’s ability to fire a coach is directly related to the price of oil. And hey: Maybe Saudi Arabia will come to the rescue of A&M boosters if they decide they cannot take another minute of the Jimbo experience. But by far the easiest thing (and to my eye the likeliest) would be to plead with the head coach to make necessary changes out of a desire not to go down as a failure. Legacy isn’t the leverage that $86 million is, but it’s what a school has left after it hands a coach the deed to the entire campus.

Correction, Nov. 14, 2022: This article originally misstated that only four active head coaches have won a national championship.

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