How about all you Aggies take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think about something pleasant, like Robert Earl Keen showing up unannounced and doing a three-hour set at the Dixie Chicken? You’re going to need a certain healthy mindset to forget Texas A&M’s 20–10 loss to Arkansas on Saturday.
Once you’re back on an even keel, remember: your season is not over. There’s still all kinds of fun to be had and goals to achieve. Also remember: this is why you’re paying one of the best college football coaches in the land roughly $9 million per year. In Jimbo we trust, right?
Jimbo Fisher is about to begin his most interesting week in College Station, and while this year’s roster faces a laundry list of problems—leaky offensive line, shaky quarterback, tackle-averse defense—my money is on Fisher to get the most out of this team. Remind yourself why you wanted A&M to be part of the Southeastern Conference in the first place. Didn’t you leave the Big 12 because you wanted the Aggies to compete against the best of the best?
“The SEC is big boy ball,” A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal reminded us on Saturday. “You’re going to have to step up. It’s the next man up every single day.”
This kind of loss is the price one pays for life in the SEC. A&M’s mistake was that some of its fans made this year out to be a one-game season—October 9, when Alabama comes to town. To be clear, this mental error did not come from Fisher or any of his players, because they all knew that even with a relatively weak schedule (by SEC standards), the Aggies were guaranteed nothing.
Yes, this was the kind of game some Aggies fans thought their program wouldn’t lose anymore. Or at least not as often. Not under this coach. Not with this talent. Especially not during a season brimming with championship chatter. Now that it happened, though, let the rest of the schedule play out. A&M could still wind up in the College Football Playoff given the uncertain landscape of the sport. Did you check out Saturday’s scores? Clemson lost its second game, and Oklahoma, Iowa, and Auburn barely escaped.
Again, the SEC is the last conference in which a team should be thinking past opponents. Next up for the Aggies is Mississippi State, coached by Mike Leach, who was 7–3 against A&M during his ten seasons at Texas Tech. That total includes winning three of five at Kyle Field.
It’s also clear now that some of us glossed over every potential problem area for the Aggies this year. They’d finished last season with an eight-game winning streak and a number-four ranking in the Associated Press poll. But even though A&M lost four starting offensive linemen and quarterback Kellen Mond in the offseason, it was easy to believe that a string of stellar recruiting classes would keep the gravy train rolling.
That might have happened if Mond’s intended replacement, Haynes King, hadn’t gotten hurt earlier this month against Colorado. His ability to run the ball appears critically important for an offensive line that’s been getting pushed around throughout the Aggies’ first four games. His backup, Zach Calzada, has a big arm but is less mobile.
On Saturday, the Razorbacks were so confident their front three defenders could handle the Aggie offensive line that the defense dropped eight men into pass coverage at times. That’s what every A&M opponent is going to do until the Aggies (a) protect the quarterback better and (b) generate a running game.
This week, as Leach studies an A&M defense that Arkansas shredded for 443 yards on Saturday, there’s no doubt the Mississippi State coach’s eyes will light up. And as Fisher prepares the Aggies for the Bulldogs, it’s not just the fact that his team lost its SEC opener by ten points on a neutral field that will keep him up at night. It’s how the loss to Arkansas played out.
The Razorbacks played harder and faster. Even after the Aggies rallied from a 17–0 deficit to narrow Arkansas’s lead to 7 in the third quarter, A&M lacked the cohesion of a championship team. “We didn’t play good in that phase and we didn’t play together in the second half,” Fisher said. “We could have fed off each other and won that field position battle, shorten[ed] the field, and got some more points.”
There were opportunities. A&M’s defense forced punts on four of Arkansas’s first five possessions in the second half, but the Aggies capitalized on just one of those chances, resulting in a 67-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Spiller that made the score 17–10. Of the three other possessions, two ended on sacks and/or penalties, and one ended on an interception.
“They never stopped us,” Spiller said. “We hurt ourselves with penalties and holdings and stuff like that. They never stopped us. So, just got to move on.”
Fisher can tweak the pass protection and compel the quarterback to release the ball sooner, but the missed tackles and penalties reflect a team that needs more than a tweak. They need a spark, something to kick the offensive line into gear, because so far, the team’s struggles in that department have thrown everything else out of sync.
Fisher can choose to stay the course and believe his offensive line and quarterback will improve. Or, he can take a more radical approach and use an up-tempo scheme that forces Calzada to play faster and deliver the ball more quickly. His best stretches of play have been on Saturday, when the Aggies were in desperation mode and trying to mount a late comeback, and during week two, when he successfully led a fourth-quarter surge to beat Colorado.
Fisher’s other challenge will be to convince his players to put Saturday’s defeat behind them. The Aggies fan base had been hyping up the possibility of an undefeated 2021 campaign since the end of last season, and now that Arkansas has flushed that goal down the toilet, it’s easy to see the Aggies unraveling from here. Fisher has to keep the rest of the season from going up in flames over this one defeat.
Fisher was blunt in his postgame press conference Saturday, presenting a businesslike rundown of his team’s mistakes. Questioned about his play-calling, he said the Razorbacks had controlled his offensive line to such an extent that high-yardage pass plays became nearly impossible. Just two of the 59 plays A&M ran on Saturday gained twenty or more yards. Those plays are defined as “explosive,” and teams can’t win without a handful of them. Arkansas, by comparison, had six explosive plays in the first half.
As Fisher went through every pass and run in his game plan, he could not find a play or sequence of plays to turn the game around. As deflating as that must have been, however, he managed to appear resolute after the loss. At least this week, the coach won’t have to worry about his team overlooking Mississippi State to focus on the looming visit from Alabama. Come Saturday, Fisher will surely have his players’ attention. They can forget about the national-championship talk for now—just go out and play winning football.
“Got to play better and got to coach together,” he said.
In Jimbo we trust.