Few images in sports are likely to be as breathtaking as those captured of Kyle Field Saturday night, after the Texas A&M Aggies played one of the most thrilling, exhausting, and ultimately satisfying games the school has ever seen.
The shots of fans pouring onto the field from a roaring, packed house of 106,815 created a visual that will live forever in the hearts of those who love Texas A&M, as well as those who appreciate sports and their infinite possibilities—including Saturday’s upset final score of Aggies 41, Alabama 38.
“It shows us that we’re capable of doing great things,” A&M running back Devon Achane said of the victory. “It’s amazing. We love this feeling.”
How did this happen? Who saw it coming? How can anyone make sense of an A&M team that could not have looked worse in back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State coming back to beat the defending national champion Crimson Tide?
From an offensive line that was pushed all over the field in A&M’s losses to a defense that missed both tackles and assignments, the Aggies had been looking like perhaps the most disappointing team in college football. At the top of that list of letdowns was quarterback Zach Calzada, who had seemed overwhelmed since stepping in for starter Haynes King in the second game of the season.
In Alabama, A&M was facing an opponent that was ranked number one in the nation, riding a nineteen-game winning streak, and favored by at least seventeen points. Oh, and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban entered the game with a 24–0 record against his former assistants, including 4–0 versus Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher. But that wasn’t even the most daunting streak A&M was up against: Alabama brought a hundred-game winning streak against unranked teams with it to College Station, and A&M had just fallen out of the the top 25 after the previous week’s loss to Mississippi State.
A&M had only defeated number-one teams twice before—Alabama in 2012 and Oklahoma in 2002—and almost no one outside the A&M locker room gave the Aggies a chance to keep Saturday’s game close, much less win it. Then, out of nowhere, the Aggies transformed into the team they were projected to be back in August, when their fans had legit dreams of a national championship.
If this wasn’t Fisher’s finest hour as a head coach, it must rank close to the top. The game started with a gutsy performance from A&M’s depleted offensive line, which was forced to start two freshmen because of injuries to other linemen. Their execution and protection allowed Calzada to get comfortable. From the start of Saturday’s game, the Aggies looked crisper, more focused, and way more efficient than they had in previous games. And the offense didn’t falter down the stretch, as Calzada was marvelous in leading two scoring drives in the final three minutes to eke out the win.
The Aggies QB opened the game by completing ten consecutive passes, and he finished with three touchdown passes and 285 yards. “Their quarterback played a lot better in this game,” Saban said. “We knew he was a talented guy. He played really well.”
On defense, the Aggies logged four sacks on Bryce Young. A&M’s defense stopped Alabama in the red zone four times, forcing the Crimson Tide to settle for three field goals and recording a takeaway with Demani Richardson’s second-quarter interception in the end zone. On special teams, Achane returned a kickoff 96 yards.
“It goes back to what I say: play the next play,” Fisher said after the game. “Don’t worry about the scoreboard. I say that. I know that sounds crazy to people. Eliminate the scoreboard. The scoreboard will say what you want when you win your job more times than the other guy does. You’ve got to understand to do that. You’ve got to keep playing. This game is tough, man. It’s a tough game when you play it that way. You’ve got to play the next play, the next play, the next play.”
Maybe because A&M looked so sloppy at times in back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State, it was impossible for anyone on the outside to envision the level these Aggies could reach when they were playing well. In the end, Fisher did something only great coaches can pull off—he got his players to ignore the noise and negativity and disappointment of their poor start, and instead convinced them to believe they could win when the outside world thought victory was impossible.
“We’ve had a couple of tough weeks,” he said. “That’s what football is. You get up off the canvas. You get the heck knocked out of you. You got to go play. You got to go play the next play. People don’t care.”
In the prior two weeks, Fisher focused on the details that contributed to the Aggies’ woes: missed assignments, dropped balls, foolish penalties. When reporters pushed him on the big picture—that is, his team’s national championship hopes slipping away—Fisher said it was a matter of fixing those little things. After Saturday’s win, he explained how cutting out distractions had helped the team focus on making those small adjustments: “Guys, there isn’t no secret to this. Ain’t no magical formula. They got to believe in what you tell them. They got to eliminate . . . all the social media, all the media, good, bad, indifferent. Knock it out. Don’t read it. I wouldn’t even read it.”
“You write your own history,” he added.
After the first of Calzada’s two late scoring drives, a game-tying 25-yard touchdown pass to Ainias Smith with three minutes remaining, the quarterback was helped off the field, seemingly unable to put weight on his left leg. But after the Aggies defense held Alabama to a three-and-out possession, Calzada jogged back out with 2:08 remaining to lead a 54-yard drive that ended with Seth Small’s game-winning 28-yard field-goal kick passing through the uprights as time expired.
“It’s the hardest position to play in sports, period,” Fisher said of his quarterback. “To be put in situations he’s put in, things that are happening, and not with a full team around him, with three receivers missing, two linemen missing, backs, timing, people hurt everywhere, it’s hard to go in there.”
What now for the 4–2 Aggies? Having proven they can handle failure, will they be able to handle success? They’ve got a road game against Missouri on Saturday.
The Alabama game was as much a heavyweight bout as a college football game, with each side punching and counterpunching, taking the opponent’s best shots, then delivering one or two of its own. And in that battle of attrition, the Aggies never buckled. Games like this one evolve into a test of will in which neither side will give in to heat, pain, adversity, whatever.
The Aggies didn’t just win it. They won it twice. A&M led by fourteen points in the third quarter, then found itself trailing by seven with five minutes remaining in the fourth. The team still wouldn’t fold. “Now you are defined by how you respond to having success,” Fisher said. “And that’s what they got to understand. There’s a growing curve in there. . . . We had some unfortunate injuries. People don’t care, and I don’t care. That ain’t an excuse. But at the same time, that’s reality. And you have to understand there’s a difference of what your results are and what the reality [is] of why those results are there, and then you coach through them. Just because we won this game don’t fix everything.”
Did something finally click and transform A&M into a team capable of greatness? Or was this one more unpredictable moment in a season filled with them? Regardless, these Aggies are once more one of the most interesting teams in college football.
No matter how great Saturday’s win felt, one victory over Alabama doesn’t put A&M (and the team’s two losses) back into the College Football Playoff mix. But if the Aggies were to run the table, which would mean picking up road wins at Ole Miss and LSU, they’d change how this season will be viewed in College Station.
“You can’t do it if you don’t believe,” defensive lineman Tyree Johnson said. “So the whole week, we just focused on believing and doing our job, nothing out of the ordinary.”