Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher knew what he was doing. As the final seconds of an Orange Bowl victory following the 2020 season ticked away, Fisher gave a little fist pump before he began to look around defensively.
As Fisher jogged to midfield he spotted what he was looking for: players holding a Gatorade jug, charging toward him. Showing a burst of speed, Fisher outran the would-be green bath, and even though the effort resulted in a bit of a limp, the large grin on his face remained.
The Aggies seemed on the cusp of breaking through after the 41-27 victory over North Carolina and a No. 4 ranking to end the pandemic-shortened season, their highest ranking since 1939. To this day, Fisher insists they were the second-best team in the country and should have made the College Football Playoff. Nothing will convince him otherwise.
While that great debate will live on in Texas A&M lore, what was not up for discussion on Jan. 2, 2021 was this: The Aggies appeared ready to break into college football’s most rarefied air, fulfilling the massive expectations that came with handing Fisher an unprecedented 10-year, $75 million contract just a few years before.
“I’m gonna tell you this,” Fisher said after the Orange Bowl victory. “We ain’t done yet.”
Since then, however, things have started to unravel. Texas A&M has opened each of the past two seasons ranked No. 6 in the preseason polls and is only 11-6 over that time. It is currently unranked, following losses to Appalachian State and Mississippi State, and heads into Tuscaloosa on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, CBS) to face No. 1 Alabama at a disappointing 3-2.
Suddenly, a game that once looked like a potential top-10 showdown and the first meeting of Fisher and Saban since their offseason war of words has taken on a very different meaning. The Aggies are losing games they shouldn’t, Fisher’s offense is the primary culprit and his post-Orange Bowl contract extension means his buyout will remain above $50 million until 2027, per USA Today. It has left some in College Station wondering whether they’re getting enough return for their hefty investment.
Fisher declined an interview for this story, but his boss believes he will turn it around.
“Look, Jimbo is an offensive innovator,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said. “He’s always adapted to the style of play. When it’s clicking on all cylinders, it works and it’s proven to work. So we just have to keep maturing, keep getting better. And obviously, we’re going to keep recruiting at a high level.”
FISHER EARNED THAT reputation Bjork mentioned first as an assistant at LSU and then as head coach at Florida State. Quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell, EJ Manuel, Christian Ponder and Jameis Winston were all first-round picks after starting multiple seasons for Fisher. His Seminoles went 26-1 with Winston as the starter, won a national title in 2013 and made the College Football Playoff in 2014.
But that feels like a lifetime ago in college football, long before NIL and the transfer portal, and back when Nick Saban still relied on defense and ball control to win games. When Saban hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator in 2014 it was to keep up with the changing times. As a result, he kept his dynasty rolling by recruiting and developing future Heisman contenders and first-round picks at quarterback seemingly every year.
This is an area where Fisher has fallen short in recent years. From 2015 to ’22, the post-Winston era, Fisher’s quarterbacks have combined for an average Total QBR of 66.5, which ranks 38th among FBS head coaches to coach at least 40 games during that span.
Between 2013 and 2017, the Seminoles signed seven quarterbacks. Only one finished his career with Florida State. At Texas A&M, Fisher has been a prodigious recruiter — his top-ranked 2022 class is one of the highest rated ever– signing and developing blue-chip talent all over the field.
But to this point, that elite talent has not panned out at quarterback.
In College Station, Fisher has signed five signal-callers. James Foster and Zach Calzada, in Fisher’s first two recruiting classes at Texas A&M, have already transferred. Haynes King, the No. 4 dual threat quarterback in the class of 2020, lost his starting job to transfer Max Johnson after the App State loss, though he was pressed into duty again this weekend when Johnson was injured, throwing two interceptions after coming off the bench. The Aggies are still very high on freshman Conner Weigman, the No. 1 quarterback in the 2022 ESPN 300, with Fisher saying Monday he could play now and be comfortable.
This year, Texas A&M ranks 105th of 131 teams in total offense (335 yards per game) and 108th in scoring offense (21.8 points per game). There aren’t many bright spots: 101st in passing offense, 98th in rushing offense, 96th in first downs, 79th in completion percentage, 115th in time of possession and last — 131st — in plays run per game (56.4). Asked about the struggles after scoring 24 points in the Mississippi State loss, Fisher doubled down, saying his system still works.
“That system is the same system a lot of people use. The plays are there,” Fisher said. “We’re just not executing.”
“I think the mistake people make is saying, ‘Boy, this is outdated,'” said former Florida coach Dan Mullen, now an ESPN analyst. “There is no perfect system. Maybe more of the issue is he has to adapt to his current roster, which he went and recruited all this speed and all these athletes on offense, and he’s got to have the system that fits those guys.”
At least one top recruit agrees with that last part.
Johntay Cook II, a Texas high school receiver who is No. 32 in the 2023 ESPN 300, told On3 during his recruitment it was a concern.
“Here is the difference between Texas and Texas A&M,” Cook said. “Right now, Texas has the scheme but not the players, A&M has the players but not the scheme. I mean A&M is running like the Wishbone offense. It’s cool and all, but if Jimbo opened it up that would be serious.”
Cook is just one player. But he was an A&M target who committed to the rival Longhorns. Still, Fisher landed Evan Stewart, the No. 2 WR and No. 13 overall recruit in the 2022 class and Chris Marshall, the No. 4 receiver.
While Fisher continues to sign elite wide receivers, he has had only three drafted in his 12 years as a head coach, including just one in the first four rounds. At Texas A&M, his receivers have struggled to put up numbers, either because of issues at quarterback or the intricacies of the system.
Manuel said it is not that the offense is overly complex; it is that there is a method to the way Fisher wants it run. It all starts with the quarterback, who has to not only read and identify the defense to make sure the offense is set for success. He must also make the correct protection calls for the offensive line, a duty that normally goes to the center.
Once quarterbacks are fully comfortable understanding what Fisher wants and how it should look, then everything becomes easier. Ponder, Manuel and Winston all redshirted at Florida State. So did Fisher’s last starting quarterback with the Seminoles, Deondre Francois, who had the highest QBR of any of Fisher’s QBs since Winston (78.0).
“The principles that he has with his offense, if you can figure them out and stick to them, you’re going to have success because he lays everything out there for you,” Manuel said. “It’s not easy, but once you do it, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go, I got this.’ Make no mistake — it’s a professional football offense, and it’s not for everybody. But the guys that can figure it out will have success.”
Over the past decade, the high school game has evolved and QB-friendly schemes like the Air Raid — which a lot of Texas high schools run — don’t require many of those nuances. Instead, there is a focus on simplification — the quarterback in the shotgun, looking to the sideline for the call. But Fisher has not simplified anything. He firmly believes in what he does with quarterbacks and his offense.
But if quarterbacks coming up in spread offenses are not able to immediately handle everything Fisher wants his quarterbacks to do, and it takes a QB multiple years to truly grasp the concepts, does Fisher’s approach still make sense in the transfer portal era?
FOR THOSE WHO believe in Fisher’s pro-style offense, they can point to scoring 41 points in an upset win over Alabama last year, but even more importantly to that 9-1 season in 2020.
That offense forged Texas A&M with a new identity. Gone were the second-half swoons that had become a running joke among A&M’s detractors. This was a physical, tough, old-school SEC team. The 2020 Aggies led the SEC in yards per rush (5.5) and time of possession and ranked fourth in the country in fewest sacks per pass attempt, allowing just four sacks all season. Senior quarterback Kellen Mond, a four-year starter, was incredibly efficient, and the Aggies converted 55% of their third downs, third best nationally.
“If you just look at 2020, I don’t think anyone had any offensive complaints,” Bjork said. “Ball control, move the ball, explosive plays, all those things were there. There’s an evolution right? When you have new quarterbacks, no matter what level, there’s a transition. When you have a Kellen Mond where you’ve got experience, and then you transition to new quarterbacks, that takes adjustment. This year, same thing. Haynes King didn’t have much experience. Then now, Max [Johnson] has got a little more experience. So you’re maybe seeing a little more poise.”
This year, the offensive line that was so stout in 2020 has faced issues, complicating those quarterback transitions. The Aggies have faced pressure on 39% of their QB dropbacks, second worst in the FBS behind only Boston College (41%).
Fisher shuffled his offensive staff’s duties before fall camp. Offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey, who also coached quarterbacks, was moved to tight ends, and is now co-OC with James Coley, who moved from tight ends to wide receivers. Dameyune Craig, who had been WR coach since arriving from FSU with Fisher, now coaches the quarterbacks alongside him.
Bjork has heard the questions wondering if Fisher has too much on his plate to handle playcalling. When Fisher has been asked about whether he would consider giving up playcalling duties, he says he “possibly could,” but it’s unclear who on the existing staff would take on that role, especially after the changes in responsibilities.
“I don’t see that,” Bjork said. “There’s head coaches that call plays all over the country. And that’s just how Jimbo is built. He wants to be in the offense. He wants to work with the quarterbacks. That’s his forte. That’s why he was hired, and that’s why we extended him because he’s got that in him.”
FORMER GEORGIA COACH Mark Richt is another fan of Fisher’s approach to coaching quarterbacks. He was at the Miami-Texas A&M game in September to watch Johnson, his nephew, make his first start for the Aggies. Richt said one of the reasons Johnson chose to transfer from LSU to Texas A&M was to learn under Fisher.
“That part of the game is really his strength, the more you can put on him to gain an advantage on the field, the better for Max,” Richt said. “Jimbo is hard on them dudes, but it’s not personal. He’s hard on all those guys.”
Another coach who has competed against Fisher does not think the Aggies’ issues stem from Fisher also serving as the primary playcaller. Though the papers and notebooks Fisher has in his hands on the sideline have become the butt of jokes, the opposing coach noted, “The guy has a million plays that his guys execute that they don’t even show. That’s amazing to me. I don’t know what all their problems are. But I think anytime you have a highly ranked recruiting class, and then you’re not measuring up to that, people are going to start throwing stones.”
But others are just puzzled by the results, saying the complicated system introduces too many problems with the sheer amount of talent on hand, that all those call sheets and notebooks are an indicator Fisher is just trying to do too much from years of knowledge he has picked up as a playcaller at multiple stops. One coach said the pressure to break out of a slump can sometimes cause coaches to dig too deep in the playbook instead of pulling back. He said that’s what he sees watching Fisher call a game.
“As a young coach, Tom Osborne gave me a piece of advice I never forgot,” said a longtime offensive coordinator of the Nebraska legend. “He said, ‘When times get tough — and they will — get out your eraser, not your pencil.'”
A Power 5 head coach agreed, saying there is way too much talent on hand for the offense to be so dysfunctional.
“Simplicity is what makes great offenses. The ability to execute,” he said. “I think that’s their issue. I turn the film on and I’m not quite sure what they’re trying to do. You have to have an identity and you have to have something that you can bank on. And I just don’t see that they have that. I know how good all these players are. Nobody can see behind the veil, but it’s just hard for me to envision that you can’t line up and run the ball against Appalachian State. I truly believe if they ran four plays the whole game — two passes and two runs — I think they win by 40.”
All that talent is a reminder of one of Fisher’s strengths: He can recruit. He knows how he wants to build a program, stockpiling talent along both the offensive and defensive lines and landing rare running back talents, such as Devon Achane, who was the MVP of that Orange Bowl as a freshman and led the SEC in yards per carry (7.0) last year. He’ll have talent. He’s an old-school coach who puts players in the NFL. The irony is Fisher’s trademark is the one area that seems to be holding back the Aggies. If they’re ever going to challenge for national titles, that’s the one area that demands the most improvement.
Both Alabama and Georgia thrived once they changed their offenses.
“I remember him saying, ‘I feel like our offense is a Lamborghini, but it’s headed off a cliff,’ meaning we’ve got these great players but are behind the times in what we’re doing,” Kiffin told ESPN last year about his first meeting with Saban after he was hired. “So we needed to change directions.”
The Crimson Tide made the College Football Playoff game six of the following eight seasons.
After a 2019 season when Georgia averaged just 21.5 points per game over a six-game stretch of SEC games, then scored just 10 in the SEC title game against LSU, Kirby Smart hired Todd Monken to take over for Coley, who was serving as offensive coordinator (he left a month later to join Fishers’ staff). Last year, the Bulldogs won their first national championship in 41 years with Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on, at QB as the Bulldogs averaged 38.6 points per game.
Still, Mullen said it’s easier for coaches like Saban and Smart to make offensive changes, because their careers were spent on the defensive side. For an offensive coach, calling your own plays as a head coach is still a source of pride, although that makes the target on your back even bigger.
Bjork believes the season is still a work in progress. But he anticipates working together with Fisher to address any future issues.
“What are the things that the program needs to be successful?” Bjork said. “If that involves making changes, implementing new ideas, there’s always ongoing conversations about all those things. Coach Fisher and I have a great relationship from that perspective. We talk all the time about the state of the program or what’s needed or what changes he might be thinking about. As I’m concerned for this year, 2022, this script is not even written yet. Coach knows how to win at a high level. He knows that if adjustments need to be made, he’s gonna make the right kind of adjustments and those things all take place during a constant evaluation. It’s an evolution.”
That starts Saturday against the Crimson Tide. Can Fisher pull off another stunner, like when he became the first Saban assistant to beat the master last year? Or will the Crimson Tide further add to the Aggies’ misery?
“I do think he is under pressure on the program taking the next step,” Mullen said. “That’s where a lot of the pressure comes from saying, ‘Hey, this is Year 5. You’ve had some really good recruiting classes. Are we going to see you at 10 or 11 wins this year? In November, are you in the mix for the SEC title game?’ Those are questions that people want answered.”