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The annual referendum on one of the boldest contracts in the history of college sports arrives again on Saturday. For Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, the early results on his axis-shifting jump from Florida State to College Station back in December of 2017 have been pedestrian.
Considering all the self-congratulatory noise Texas A&M made when hiring Fisher, the on-field realities have been defiantly vanilla. You don’t guarantee $75 million over 10 years for vanilla. The best way to sum up Fisher’s middle-class mediocrity is that Mississippi State’s Mike Leach generated more on-field buzz in one game than Fisher has in 27.
No. 13 Texas A&M visits No. 2 Alabama amid the sun-splashed inevitability of high CBS ratings on Saturday. And that will give us the annual peek at how Fisher is justifying his monster contract, which is now in its third season. Alabama remains the gold standard of SEC football. And no one knows this better than Fisher, a former Nick Saban assistant at LSU in the early 2000s.
So far, the Alabama referendum has been unkind to Fisher. He’s lost the first two games by an average of nearly three touchdowns (20.5). Texas A&M is a 17.5-point road underdog on Saturday, and only the most die-hard A&M fans can conjure paths to victory in Tuscaloosa. With Florida visiting College Station in Week 3, you don’t need Nostradamus to predict heavy cross-winds of criticism coming Fisher’s way this fall if Texas A&M starts 1-2.
In Year 3 under Fisher, Texas A&M has no clear identity, no program-altering wins and little optimism to compete in the SEC West. At 18-9 through three seasons and coming off a sputtering mess of a 17-12 victory over Vanderbilt to open 2020, it’s hard to argue that Fisher has been worth the money.
It’s too early to say the contract will represent an untenable anchor to an undistinguished cycle of 8-5 and 9-4. It’s not too early to say that A&M under Fisher so far has been disappointing.
The scariest sign may be the carcass of a once-elite program – especially on the offensive line – that he left back in Tallahassee. “Culturally, it was as bad as I’ve seen,” said a former FSU staff member. “They are three-to-four years away from competing with Clemson.”
As the coach at Florida State, winning all the games you are favored in means ACC title contention. At Texas A&M, the same archetype leaves you lost in traffic in the SEC West. (Fisher went 83-23 at FSU and won the national title in 2013.)
So far, the best moments of Fisher’s A&M tenure remains a hodgepodge of the unremarkable – playing an elite Clemson team to the cusp of overtime in 2018 and back-to-back No. 6 Rivals.com recruiting classes in 2019 and 2020. The most memorable win came against No. 8 LSU in seven overtimes two years ago, but what’s lost in that wondrous slog is that it prevented A&M from slipping to 6-5 at that time.
Last season, Texas A&M went 0-4 against top-20 teams. Texas A&M’s best win in 2019 came against No. 25 Oklahoma State, which doesn’t exactly justify all that chestiness that’s come after Texas A&M escaped the Big 12’s dysfunction chamber and burst onto the SEC scene with an upset of No. 1 Alabama in 2012.
Since then, Johnny Manziel has gone from beloved Johnny Football to the ignored Johnny Tabloid, his missteps becoming such an expectation that, sadly, they’re now irrelevant. And A&M has descended to what many predicted when it entered the gauntlet of the SEC West – it is shivering in the shadows of the division’s elite. (A&M fans still have chills from the 50-7 beating at LSU last year.)
Prior to the pandemic, A&M had one of the easiest schedules in school history, as it traded Clemson for Colorado in the non-conference and Georgia for Vanderbilt in crossover play. A&M would have been heavily favored in its first six games and expected to be 6-0 before a road trip to Auburn on Oct. 17.
Instead, A&M added a home game with Florida and a road game with Tennessee to its SEC-only schedule. Nothing indicates your lot in life like the not-so-subtle intentions of the SEC schedule-makers. Texas A&M didn’t get the Missouri and Vanderbilt treatment, but they surely didn’t get the Alabama and LSU treatment either.
The Aggies project to at least touchdown home underdogs against Florida on Oct. 10 if the trip to Tuscaloosa turns into the woodshed visit that Vegas expects. It’d be surprising if A&M isn’t 1-2 on Oct. 11, heading into a suddenly fraught game at Mississippi State the next week.
With that schedule comes opportunity, of course. But that would mean that A&M would need senior quarterback Kellen Mond to again flash the hints of stardom he teased us with early in his career. The most disappointing part of Fisher’s time in College Station is his inability to unleash Mond, who fumbled three times against Vanderbilt (losing two) and the other coming on a failed fourth down.
Mond’s career is reflective of A&M under Fisher – turtling when the spotlight increases and the challenge is greatest. Mond is 2-6 in road games during Fisher’s tenure, the wins expected against South Carolina (2018) and Ole Miss (2019).
The next two weeks offer Mond a chance to rewrite his decisively unspectacular career narrative and reengage Fisher’s long-crafted reputation as a quarterback whisperer. Consecutive decisive performances could turn him from a career tease into an all-SEC caliber quarterback. But he’s got a lot of ground to catch up with Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Auburn’s Bo Nix already staked out ahead of him in 2020.
Year 3 for modern college coaches is a fair place to start judging their rosters and results, as it marks the point where the players they’ve compiled at this point rival what they’ve inherited.
Former Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward, the man who handed out the deal, is now the athletic director at LSU. He justified the expense – and all that guaranteed money – as the market for a championship coach. Since then, he inherited a coach at LSU in Ed Orgeron who won a championship.
In two weeks, LSU fans could well be complimenting Woodward’s savvy for saddling a division rival with a contract that has them treading water. A&M will have $52.5 million guaranteed to Fisher after this season.
While it’s too early to declare Fisher a flop, it’s not too early to say that both he and A&M are lagging behind expectations. And if they continue to sputter in 2020 and start 1-2 – or perhaps 1-3 – the vanilla results we’ve experienced so far will begin to conjure a less-favorable flavor profile.
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