Texas A&M and the University of Texas have been college football punchlines for so long that it’s probably foolish to believe this season will be any different. Then again, if the beginning of a new football season isn’t a perfect time to buy into the power of the possible, then when will there ever be?
The faithful are planting our flags on A&M and UT both having top-tier talent, and choosing to believe that talent eventually wins out. The Aggies and Longhorns may also have the most important ingredient for every special team: big-time quarterback play.
Texas A&M’s Conner Weigman finally got on the field in the eighth game of last year’s 5–7 season and did not disappoint, throwing 132 passes without an interception over the team’s last five games. With an experienced offensive line in front of him and solid talent at the skill positions, he appears capable of QB production the Aggies haven’t seen since Johnny Manziel.
Likewise, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said he has seen dramatic growth from Longhorns signal caller Quinn Ewers. Ewers was once the most highly recruited quarterback in the country, but he left high school in the Dallas suburbs before his senior season to collect name, image, and likeness money while sitting on the bench at Ohio State. He transferred to Texas before last season and was wildly inconsistent, throwing four touchdown passes against Oklahoma, and two weeks later completing just 19 of 49 throws against Oklahoma State. Ewers finished with a 369-yard passing game in an Alamo Bowl loss to Washington and has had such a good off-season that another heralded quarterback recruit, Arch Manning, will begin the season as an understudy.
“He’s earned the respect of his teammates throughout this time and throughout this process,” Sarkisian said of Ewers at last week’s Big 12 media gathering. “There’s not a throw he can’t make. He’s got a very high football IQ. And if things go the way we think they can go, the pundits are probably right—he is a first-round draft pick.”
Productive quarterback play can mask a team’s other weaknesses, particularly if the players can avoid unnecessary drama and unforced errors on and off the field. Which brings us to A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, the maestro of unnecessary drama. If you bet the under on new Aggies offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino lasting an entire season, things are looking good. On the first day of the Southeastern Conference’s media gathering in Nashville this week, Fisher was asked a seemingly innocent question about relinquishing play-calling duties to Petrino. It should have prompted the coach’s easiest answer of the week. The Aggies’ losing record in 2022 can be blamed, at least in part, on Fisher’s decision to design and direct an offense that turned out to be among the worst in college football, averaging just 22.8 points per game. The Aggies lost five games by six points or less, so one additional touchdown per game might have produced a winning record.
Fisher’s off-season search for an offensive coordinator seemed awkward for a head coach who takes pride in being a great offensive mind. Was he truly capable of handing the keys to another play caller? Some assistants declined to be considered for the role for that very reason. Petrino, 62, was an unexpected hire, in part because he’d been a head coach at every stop in his career since 2003. To many, the enduring image of Petrino is him wearing a neck brace, face covered with scratches after a motorcycle accident with a female passenger who wasn’t his wife. That incident cost him the head coaching job at Arkansas in 2012. Texas A&M is his fourth stop since then. But Petrino has also been the architect of some of college football’s best offenses over decades in the sport, and he seemed a nice fit to get A&M’s offense back on track.
Only, when reporters asked Fisher about Petrino calling plays on Monday, Fisher, often prickly, shut down the line of questioning. “I’m not going to get into what we’re doing, how we’re doing it,” Fisher said. “Hopefully he’ll call the game.”
Hopefully? “We’ll have suggestions on things we do, whether it’s offense or defense,” Fisher said.
“Every coach is always involved,” Fisher said. “It’s a more collective thing than people want to give it room for.”
So perhaps those comments mean that Fisher intends to turn his offense over to Petrino, but the true test will come in the fourth quarter of a close game when the two men disagree on a play call. This season’s safest prediction may be that between Fisher and Petrino, a whiteboard or two will be broken.
Fisher speaks so fast that at times, his comments need to be parsed to figure out what he meant to say. He also loves stirring things up. Last spring, he used a routine Aggie Club speech in Fort Worth to take a ridiculous shot at TCU’s run to the national championship game. “They stayed healthy, they had a lot of experience, and they got to where they had to get to,” he said. “And then when they got to the SEC, it changed, didn’t it?” He was referencing TCU’s 65–7 loss to Georgia in the national championship game. Within seconds, Twitter was ablaze with reminders that the Aggies hadn’t gotten past the Sun Belt Conference in a 17–14 loss to Appalachian State last September.
This week, Fisher swatted away questions about his job security, telling reporters: “What [people] say and how [they] say it, we don’t listen to them. We can’t. Those are things that don’t matter. We know what we have to do and how we have to do it.”
A&M’s poor results last season stand out because few schools have more to offer in terms of facilities; fan support; and name, image, and likeness money. When A&M lured Fisher from Florida State for a deal worth $75 million over ten years (which has since been extended) after the 2017 season, it seemed to set the stage for a new era of A&M football. To believe in a turnaround is to believe in the talent. Fisher’s last four recruiting classes have been ranked fourteenth, first, seventh, and sixth by Rivals.com. But Fisher has yet to deliver a season with double-digit victories, and his fifth year in College Station was so disappointing that expectations for his sixth could hardly be lower.
No matter. Fisher’s job is safe because A&M negotiated itself into a marriage from which there is no escape—at least not anytime soon. Fisher will make $9.5 million this season—only Alabama’s Nick Saban, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, and USC’s Lincoln Riley make more—and if the university decides to fire Fisher and buy out his contract after the 2023 season, it will still cost A&M a hefty $77 million.
Meanwhile, Texas, the king of the underachievers, has had one top ten finish in the national rankings since its last Big 12 championship in 2009. Since then, UT has had more losing seasons (five) than top ten finishes (one). “This team is different,” Sarkisian said last week. “They have a different look in their eye. They look different on the hoof. They interact with one another differently. I think this team is on a mission.” The coach is only 13–12 in two seasons at Texas, but his 2022 and 2023 recruiting classes were ranked third and fifth nationally by Rivals. Only Georgia and Alabama were higher in both years.
The Longhorns will have more talent on the roster than every opponent on UT’s 2023 schedule except Alabama, and the Longhorns received 41 of 67 votes to finish with the conference’s best record in a Big 12 media poll. Texas will be playing its final season in the Big 12 before joining the SEC in 2024, which should make the Longhorns’ road games particularly interesting.
“It won’t be awkward for us,” Sarkisian said. “I can’t speak for anybody else. . . . We’ve got a roster full of players who quite frankly came to the University of Texas to try to win a Big 12 Championship, and we’ve got one more opportunity to do that, and I think our guys are focused on that.”