The minister of aggy propaganda
Cover Story: Facing, answering tough questions crucial for Aggies
By Billy Liucci
September 22, 2019
I'll start with this: If you don't think Jimbo Fisher is the right guy for this job, please do yourself a favor and stop reading now. It'll save you a good ten minutes of your Sunday evening. It's my experience that you're going to read what you want to read and you won't walk away happy. Use that time to do something constructive...like venting on social media.
For the rest of you:
"We'll evaluate everything. What we're doing, how we're doing it, who's doing it, the way it's done. And we'll make those changes."
That was Jimbo Fisher’s message following Texas A&M's 28-20 loss to No. 8 Auburn, a game that was a lot more one-sided than the final score indicated. As the second-year head coach made fairly clear in the post-game presser, he and the Aggies are searching for answers.
Unfortunately, answers were something the Ags had none of on Saturday, as Gus Malzahn's Tigers sprinted out to a 14-0 lead that silenced the 101,681 in attendance at Kyle Field and never really let the home team off the mat. Nothing worked for A&M. Not the offense, not the defense (stats be damned) and certainly not special teams. The Ags were equal parts overmatched, out-schemed and, when the opportunity to make the plays necessary to weather the early storm or chip away at the lead arose, were unable to execute and take advantage. All of this while playing at home against a division foe — one starting a true freshman at quarterback — that the Aggies are still jockeying for position with in the SEC pecking order.
A&M never came close on Saturday. That's something we may have said once in thirteen games last fall, when three of A&M's four losses weren't decided until the final minute or two, and when Fisher's Aggies were rapidly ascending at season's end. A few key senior graduations and some premature NFL departures later and suddenly the Ags are 0-2 in two games that matter against top-10 teams. And the 0-2 is one thing, but when you're down 24-3 in the third quarter at Clemson and follow that up by trailing Auburn 21-3 just three minutes into the second half at Kyle Field, it means that answers are in short supply, questions abound and any momentum the 11th-ranked team had entering the season is a distant memory. Last year was last year, and what we've seen so far from this year's squad is that they don't yet have what it takes to stay within two scores of a legitimate top-10 opponent.
Lia Musgrave, TexAgs
If Texas A&M is to pull an upset against Alabama, Georgia or LSU, much will need to be corrected in the coming weeks.
The problem of course (and it's one of the primary reasons the TexAgs message boards and social media were so full of doom and gloom by Saturday evening) is that the Aggies still have to face three more teams ranked in the top 5. There's very little doubt that Alabama, Georgia and LSU (and the Ags face the last two on the road in incredibly hostile environments) are much more complete football teams than Auburn. It would come as quite the surprise to see Gus Malzahn's Tigers knock off any of those three later this fall, but that really has nothing to do with A&M, I suppose. What has everything to do with the Aggies' 2019 season is Fisher figuring out how and where his team can dramatically improve and do so in a hurry. Because, as things sit today, a team that has managed a field goal through three quarters and trailed late by three scores to both Clemson and Auburn has to knock off at least a team ranked #2, 3 or 4 to avoid a 7-5 season.
Fisher and his players aren't lying when they say they focus on only the opponent in front of them, which is a good thing today because there isn't a team on the remaining conference schedule that the Ags can afford to overlook. Even Arkansas (who on Saturday night became San Jose State's first P5 victim since 2006) is going to require A&M's full attention, as will Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Like those teams, the Aggies are nearing the end of September still in search of answers. Sure, the Ags would be favored in each of those games today, but let's not forget the fact that the home team was favored yesterday at Kyle Field. Unlike many of you reading this, I don't believe that Texas A&M is a bad football team. I also know they're not yet a good team, which is a hard truth that (I sure hope) everyone in the A&M locker room knows has to be corrected before the season gets away from the Aggies.
And while it may seem like it today, that's not necessarily the case. There's still a ton of football yet to be played. It was said countless times in the week leading up to the SEC opener (yes, the Aggies have played one of eight conference games if you're scoring at home), and I've been saying it throughout the off-season: The home date with Auburn was quite possibly the most pivotal game of A&M's season. You knew it, I knew it and (despite the 'faceless opponent' approach that I think is an excellent way to attack a season) the Aggie players and coaches knew it too: Playing a top-10, division rival at home in the conference-opener? Yeah, that's a pretty big one, especially when facing a team that you dominated for most of four quarters a season ago before letting a win slip through your grasp. This was the opportunity to open up SEC play with a monster win in front of the 12th Man, hammering home the point that Kyle Field was indeed 'back' as well as erasing whatever bad taste or lingering concerns were left by the Clemson loss two weeks earlier.
Clemson was one game. On the road. Against the defending champs and No. 1 team in the nation. It's now two games. And the Aggies have yet to win one of note. Making the difficult but correct personnel decisions, pushing the right schematic and emotional buttons and motivating his staff and players to perform better from here on out is a non-negotiable must. That's essentially what Fisher was telling us following Saturday's setback.
Making the difficult but correct personnel decisions, pushing the right schematic and emotional buttons and motivating his staff and players to perform better from here on out is a non-negotiable must. That's essentially what Fisher was telling us following Saturday's setback.
If the Auburn game was indeed the season's most pivotal game, that means one of two things: It means that the story of A&M's season was written on September 21 — that the 2019 Aggies are a middle-of-the-pack SEC outfit destined to play in a meaningless bowl game — OR that the pivot was actually a turning point moment for this football team and that the Ags show significant progress from the moment they walked off the field on Saturday through the end of the season. I know what you're thinking, and I'm with you. I just re-watched the game, and it feels far-fetched to think it. However, I've also watched a hell of a lot of college football over the past quarter-century, and there are too many examples of an in-season transformation taking place.
For example, a year ago at this time, Texas was still recovering from losing to Maryland for the second time in as many seasons. While most of us here in College Station relished in Burnt Orange misfortune, the Horns regrouped, went on to beat Oklahoma in October and then Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. I know, I know...not the example anyone wants to hear right now. Okay, so how about we focus on the guy charged with righting the ship? Reactionary message board nonsense aside, the fact of the matter is that the Aggies have a national championship-winning head coach who has been there and done that when it comes to building a program and figuring this type of thing out. He helped Nick Saban do it at LSU, where the Tigers dropped four games in year one and a game early in year two to Ole Miss that raised serious questions in Bayou Country about whether or not the former Michigan State coach was the right man for the job (I swear to you, that really happened. Look it up). Saban and LSU went on to win the SEC title in year two but, even after that, lost five games the following season, including an ugly 28-9 September setback to Virginia Tech. The Tigers proceeded to win it all in '03.
While at Florida State, Fisher's breakthrough didn't come until year three. The ‘Noles dropped four games in each of his first two seasons at the helm in Tallahassee, including a three-game September losing skid in year two. FSU then went on an incredible run, going on a 66-10 tear from that moment forward. The Aggie head coach also had a front-row seat in the ACC as he watched Dabo Swinney drop eleven games in his first two seasons at Clemson before turning the Tigers into two-time champs (and counting).
Fisher wants it to happen overnight, and the momentum heading into the off-season certainly gave program insiders and fans alike reason to be optimistic. Even then, however, the head coach and the most optimistic among us knew that the 2019 squad was going to have some holes and perhaps even a leadership void that would be difficult to fill, especially early in the season, and especially against arguably the toughest schedule in college football history (as of today, the Ags are scheduled to play No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7). So far, the questions haven't been answered, and the 'potential problem areas' have indeed become debilitating holes when facing elite-level opposition.
Lia Musgrave, TexAgs
Fisher and Co. know their charge: find answers for 2019 now while continuing to build for the long haul.
On Saturday, the Aggies ran into an Auburn program that is still superior when it comes to talent in the trenches and a team that featured a far greater number of experienced veterans on both sides of the ball (just like Clemson last year, several 'stay or go' Tigers elected to return in 2019, while the Ags lost four early to the NFL Draft). Though he's had a rocky run on the Plains, Malzahn is in year seven at Auburn and has a roster stocked with top-10 recruiting classes. The advantage in talent up front and experience at all three levels of the defense was certainly a big part of the difference. Across the board, Auburn also looked like the faster, twitchier and more athletic football team. That was especially true on the perimeter, regardless of who had the ball.
Those are long-term, big-picture concerns that Fisher and his staff realize they have to address through recruiting. It's not going to be resolved with a single Top-5 class. This is where it's particularly tough in the Southeastern Conference: While Texas played an unranked Oklahoma State team at home on Saturday, the Ags were taking on a top-10 opponent in front of dozens of their highest-priority targets from the '20 and '21 classes. The Ags lost a football game in front of the very prospects they're trying to impress, but Fisher and Co. cannot let one game set them back. It's also why falling behind by two scores in the first quarter, essentially muting one of the most significant home-field advantages in college football (the same group that helped will you to wins last season over Kentucky and LSU and nearly fueled a Clemson upset) is something that can't happen.
The Ags missed a golden opportunity to shape a lot of pretty impactful opinions on Saturday afternoon, but outstanding recruiters tend to overcome such hurdles, as was the case on Saturday afternoon when A&M added a huge commit with a head-to-head win over Alabama and several other SEC powers in East St. Louis safety Antonio Johnson. The Aggies are very close to reeling in several other big-time talents from out of state, and a couple of potential game-changers from Texas are also close. Guys like Johnson, “Mr. Electricity” Devon Achane, 315-pound Memphis offensive lineman Chris Morris and Miami pass-rushing phenom Donnell Harris are the type of guys that tend to close the gap quite quickly. Most of the Ags' class of true freshmen and current commits like Demond Demas, Jaylon Jones and Haynes King do the same.
Still, winning more, and especially winning more big games, is how the Aggies will ultimately go about signing such players. Avoiding losing games you shouldn't is also an essential part of the recruiting equation. Fisher's ability to figure out the answers to all of (or at least as many as possible) the tough questions he's going to evaluate this week and into the bye will have a pretty direct and significant impact on A&M's efforts in this cycle and the next.
For starters, you can bet that Fisher will push competition this week. Quite frankly, I'd be disappointed if we didn't see at least a couple of changes in the starting lineup. Competition is a must. Judging from the results, there have to be guys out there on both sides of the ball who simply aren't getting the job done. Maybe it's a young talent like Ainias Smith or DeMarvin Leal. Perhaps shuffling things up along the offensive line. Maybe it's a veteran on defense who can at least help address some of the 'football IQ' issues we saw on that side of the ball. Whatever it takes to spark competition at this point and put a better unit on the field on each side of the ball.
Offensively (and this has been by far the Ags' biggest issue), does Fisher continue to grind away at improving what's been a nonexistent Aggie running game, or does he open things up and ask his quarterback to do more with his legs, on both designed runs and especially via the scramble? Right now, the A&M offense lacks the ability to put any real pressure on opposing defenses. No home-run threat in the backfield, no bona fide deep threat or speed merchant at wideout and, through four games, nothing in the way of a running game (246 combined yards on the ground against Clemson and Auburn). Mond scrambling and perhaps pulling it more often and getting the edge seems like one of the few 'in house' fixes available. Adding an explosive playmaker to the regular receiving rotation would also help, which is what Fisher seemed pretty adamant about following the game in regards to Smith seeing more playing time.
Lia Musgrave, TexAgs
Even though the Aggie offense has taken much of the heat, Mike Elko’s defense also has some challenges to address.
While the results have been better on defense, Mike Elko knows better than anyone that there are issues on his side of the ball, as well. The Ags miss the experience provided by Kingsley Keke and Landis Durham on the edge in a big way, and it's something that Auburn exploited early, late and often on Saturday. I see a unit lacking speed, explosion and raw athleticism at several positions on the perimeter. Some of the guys in maroon jerseys looked befuddled by what Malzahn was doing with a true freshman quarterback leading the charge. Expect to see Elko continue to mix things up in terms of his personnel, veterans and youngsters alike, as the Aggies are still desperate to find or develop a true defensive playmaker or two while also eliminating the mental busts we saw versus Auburn and, to a lesser degree, at Clemson.
As Jimbo said during the post-game, Saturday's setback — along with the way the Ags have started the season — requires the head coach and his assistants to ask the tough questions. It demands that players be tested to the point that desperately-needed leadership reveals itself. So, for now, let's shelve the history lessons that some of you appreciate and find relevant and some just aren't in the mood to read about, and let’s not waste time trying to figure what the Aggies must do in order to shock Bama in three weeks or to knock off Georgia or LSU in November. We've yet to see A&M line up against one of the other mid-level SEC teams, so there's no way to tell how even those games will turn out. But it's coming, and it's going to happen (to varying degrees) several times over the next six weeks. Including this weekend in Dallas against an Arkansas team that is both embarrassed and backed in a corner. Yes, the Ags are favored by more than three touchdowns against the Hogs, but Arkansas was a 21-point favorite over San Jose State when they kicked off in Fayetteville last night.
This is where that whole "one game at a time" mantra comes in. Get one, get to the bye and let Fisher and his players figure this entire thing out. Because while Jimbo is playing the long game in terms of building the A&M program, he also knows the importance of the here and now in 2019, and that momentum can sometimes be as fleeting as it is overwhelming