Lane Kiffin’s scouting report on Texas A&M last week couldn’t have been simpler: “One of the top five rosters in America.”
See what the Ole Miss head football coach did there? He declared that the Aggies have a top-five roster, which is not the same as a top-five team. In other words, he’s not impressed with Jimbo Fisher’s performance as the Texas A&M head coach. Fisher has assembled great talent, Kiffin said, but he hasn’t turned it into a very good team.
Thus began a week in which Jimbo Fisher became a punch line. ESPN’s College GameDay crew piled on about A&M’s lack of success. A columnist for the Athletic said Fisher’s contract—firing him would cost A&M around $85 million—might be a tipping point for coaching salaries. And in the days leading up to A&M’s 31–28 loss to Ole Miss, Kiffin did something that cautious, don’t-poke-the-bear college coaches almost never do. He gave Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies bulletin-board material and dared them to make him eat his words. The Aggies failed.
In case you were wondering about the collective mood in College Station, where the Aggies have gone from preseason national-championship contenders to SEC punching bags, it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. A&M’s current four-game losing streak is its longest in 17 years, and the team is one away from its longest in 42 years, which covers a whole lot of Aggie angst.
To taunt an opposing coach before the big game, like Kiffin did last week, reflects a lack of respect for what the Aggies are even capable of. After his team won, the Ole Miss coach didn’t let up. Here’s a sample:
“Three hundred and ninety yards rushing against a bunch of five-stars is pretty good.”
Asked if he had plans for a Halloween costume, he shot back: “Maybe Jimbo has a Joker outfit for me.” (Fisher used the word “clown” earlier this year when Kiffin said something about A&M’s deep-pocketed NIL strategy for attracting recruits.)
Gig ’em? This is not how Jimbo Fisher expected his fifth season at Texas A&M to unfold. He had just signed what some analysts called the greatest recruiting class in college football history, and there was a sense that this year might finally be the one when he’d justify all those millions of dollars A&M has thrown at him.
That hasn’t happened. A&M suffered an embarrassing defeat to Appalachian State in its second game. The Aggies beat Miami the following week, then held on to beat Arkansas thanks to a late missed field goal. Since then, the wheels have come off, with road losses to Mississippi State, Alabama, and South Carolina. Back home at Kyle Field last weekend, with the team fielding its third different starting quarterback, Conner Weigman, the Aggies lost again.
It’s not much of a silver lining for a program carrying such lofty expectations, but at least most of A&M’s losses have been competitive. Besides an eighteen-point loss to Mississippi State, the Aggies have been one score away from winning in all of their defeats. Against mighty Alabama, they came up two yards short in the closing minutes.
But a few bad bounces can’t explain how consistently Fisher’s team has found ways to lose. It’s always something. Ole Miss, as Kiffin mentioned, battered the Aggies for 390 yards on the ground. Penalties have also killed the team. So has an underperforming offense that ranks 104th out of 131 FBS schools in scoring.
If Fisher were any other college football coach, he’d almost certainly have been fired by now. He’d deserve it, too. Despite the constant hype about greatness being just around the corner, Texas A&M (3–5 overall, 1–4 in the SEC) is in no better shape than it was five years ago, when Kevin Sumlin was shown the door after a 7–6 season.
Only Fisher is not going to be fired. At least he has that going for him. No matter how many more slices of humble pie this season serves up, nothing will change the fact that A&M and its head coach are welded at the hip. That’s because the buyout on Jimbo Fisher’s contract would cost around $85 million if the Aggies fired him. In an industry in which coaches routinely pocket tens of millions of dollars when they’re let go, that’s more than double the amount any fired college coach has ever gotten.
In 2017, when A&M chancellor John Sharp was asked about the wisdom of Fisher’s record-setting original contract, worth $75 million over ten years, Sharp shot back: “We couldn’t get him to agree to a fifteen-year deal, so this is the best we got.”
When the Aggies went 9–1 in Fisher’s third season, the school fattened his paycheck again with an extension that will pay him more than $9 million a year through 2031. That’s guaranteed money, meaning the Aggies would have to pony up approximately $85 million if they sent him packing. And although the Aggies are plenty mad about the current state of their football program, they’re not that mad.
A&M’s embarrassment this season goes beyond wins and losses; there are also problems with poor discipline. Last week, Fisher suspended three members of A&M’s heralded 2022 recruiting class—two of them for the second time—over an alleged locker-room incident at South Carolina.
In a previous era of college football, one nightmare season could be turned into a building block for future success, with all the hard lessons learned paying off in a massive comeback season. Well, don’t hold your breath, Aggies, because those days are gone.
Thanks to the NCAA’s transfer portal, unhappy players can leave for greener pastures, meaning the Aggies could be facing a massive exodus. Meanwhile, reporters covering the team are coming up with ways to ask players, “Do you guys still care?”
“I’m very confident that this team hasn’t checked out,” tight end Max Wright said recently. “I think that as frustrating as the start of the season has been, there’s still a lot of ball left to play. There’s still a lot of great things that can happen in the rest of the season that can still help us finish out this year really strong.”
And then there’s the head coach himself, long considered an offensive guru. Jimbo Fisher is certainly no longer that. He’s either too stubborn to play catch-up with recent trends in college football strategy or unable to adjust to a sport that’s changing almost by the hour. Instead, the Aggies appear to be running roughly the same stuff Fisher used a decade ago at Florida State. Fisher’s scheme there was distinctive for its complexities, with quarterbacks needing a year or two to grasp all its intricacies.
But what was innovative then now reflects a lack of imagination and an unwillingness to adapt to the new landscape of NCAA sports. With athlete transfers more common than ever, football programs must cope with a constant level of roster churn, and offenses have to be designed to put young, inexperienced quarterbacks in positions to step in and find immediate success.
Whatever the reason, the Aggies’ offense is not working. Despite a string of elite recruiting classes, A&M ranks ninety-fifth in the nation in total offense, with an average of 359.5 yards per game. Prior to Saturday’s loss, the Aggies had failed to score more than 24 points in nine consecutive games against FBS opponents.
“He is the most talked-about coach in college football right now, because he is vastly and woefully underperforming,” ESPN’s Paul Finebaum said last month. “Next year, the pressure is on. . . . If Jimbo Fisher doesn’t win, that eighty-five million won’t be tough for those Texas oil tycoons to come up with.”
Fisher has been noncommittal about changes. He has hinted that he might give up play-calling duties if he decides it’s the best thing for the team. But some observers believe Fisher’s ego would never allow him to put his offense into another coach’s hands.
“There will be changes in staff, style, and likely offensive play-calling moving forward in College Station,” ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported on College GameDay. “I’ve been told that everything is on the table at Texas A&M. One factor for A&M is that Jimbo Fisher’s offense is famously complicated. This has to be simplified in order to streamline young talents on the field.”
In a normal relationship between a struggling coach and his school’s decision-makers, the coach would be gently pushed to make changes. Only in this case, Fisher has all the leverage in his relationship with the College Station brass. Nothing changes unless he says it changes, and he has let it be known that he doesn’t believe his offense is too complicated or outdated.
“I think you just have to be realistic,” Finebaum said this week on ESPN’s college football podcast. “He has wasted a great recruiting class.”
“Here’s the issue,” Finebaum went on. “Another loss, and it just feels like there’s something stuck to this program—the stigma—that Jimbo Fisher can’t talk his way out of.”
The Aggies will be favored in their next three games, against Florida, Auburn, and UMass, before finishing at home against LSU. If A&M runs the table, Fisher will enter an important off-season with a shred of positivity to sell and a chance to hold on to some of those precious four- and five-star recruits who might be browsing the transfer portal.
Fisher was philosophical about all of that on Saturday. “Right now,” he told reporters, “yelling, hooting, and hollering ain’t going to get things done.”