Is Texas A&M ready to challenge Alabama, or is it still a year away?
He’s starting to get the question with regularity, the one that everyone else in college football has been asking since Nick Saban took over Alabama in 2008.
“What's it going to take?” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said about beating the Crimson Tide. “Sixty minutes of great football. You have to line up and play. And more importantly, you have to expect to win the game. Don't hope to win it. You got to expect to win.”
Year two of the Fisher era in College Station is set to begin with Aggie fans getting anxious to challenge for their first SEC West title. That’s why he received a 10-yard, $75 million deal, and Texas A&M is coming off a nine-win season and second-place finish in the division.
It was a good start, and while a lot of experts predict that the Aggies are still a year away from being a College Football Playoff contender, they have the advantage of hosting the Crimson Tide this season on Oct. 12th.
It’s where Nick Saban made his famous ‘rat poison’ quote two years ago after a 27-19 victory:
“I’m trying to get our players to listen to me, instead of listening to you guys. You know, all that stuff you write about how good we are? And all that stuff they hear on ESPN? It’s like poison. You know what I mean? It’s like poison. It’s like taking poison. Like rat poison. All right, so I’m asking them, ‘Are you gonna listen to me, or are you gonna listen to these guys about how good you are?”
Kyle Field was already a tough place to play, especially with the heat, but the $485 million rebuild in 2015 bumped the seating capacity up to 102,733. The more the Aggies win, the louder the home of the 12th Man becomes, making it one of the toughest venues in college football.
“That stadium is massive,” former Crimson Tide wide receiver Richard Mullaney said in 2015.” I know we had trouble at the end of the second quarter with how loud they were. It was a really cool experience.”
Two years later, offensive lineman Jonah Williams called it a “great stadium" and a “hostile environment.”
On paper, it should be Alabama’s first big test of the season, unless South Carolina or one of the four other preceding opponents can put a scare into the Crimson Tide, or worse.
However, it won’t be for Texas A&M. Week 2, the Aggies are at Clemson.
Moreover, they close the season at Georgia and LSU on back-to-back Saturdays. Consequently, Texas A&M will face all three teams expected to be at the top of the preseason polls, and possibly four of the top five. If it wins the division it’ll also get to play in the SEC Championship Game seven days after its rematch with the opponent it took seven overtimes to defeat last year.
It’s probably a good thing that the talk of a regular showdown with Texas hasn’t materialized yet.
“Rivalries come when both teams are good,” said Fisher, Saban’s only offensive coordinator at LSU (2000-04). “I think we are building our program to be good. LSU is establishing itself as a great program. I think that's how rivalries are made. Just like everybody talks about the LSU/Alabama rivalry, that wasn't a rivalry when we first went to LSU years ago. Then it evolved.
“The more rivalries, the more emotions you have in college football, I think that's what makes it such a great game.”
Overall, Texas A&M returns sevens starters on offense including a lot of veterans at wide receiver. Tight end Jace Sternberger, who led the Aggies in receptions (48), receiving yards (832) and touchdown catches (10), has moved on to the NFL, but Fisher landed top prospect Baylor Cupp as a replacement. The early enrollee turned heads during the spring.
The Aggies also have to replace two starters on an offensive line that gave up 35 sacks last year, tied for the most allowed in the SEC. Some of that was also due to quarterback Kellen Mond, who had to run the new offense as a sophomore.
He still threw for 3,107 yards, with 24 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions, and ran for 474 yards and seven more scores. Mond would be getting more preseason hype if it wasn’t such a strong year for quarterbacks the SEC.
“There's a lot of things within a play that are accessible that guys aren't ready for,” Fisher said in describing Mond’s development. “You know, you give them the basic 1-2 read, but if there's certain looks, can you run that same play and the look on the back side is better than what it is on the front side. Giving him availability to have the five available receivers being able to go to him at any time or a check that can get us in a run or get us in a right look or he sees a certain blitz to take a shot.
“But also, you call the play, it's one or two, but now if you do get these matchups, you may get one, two, three or four. And expanding -- like I say, you take Algebra 1. Algebra doesn't change, but Algebra 2 gets more complicated. You just keep adding more to the formula as you go. That's where he's getting to.”
Meanwhile, the biggest question mark with the team, and the reason why so many experts believe the Aggies are still a year away from being a strong contender, is the defense — especially the secondary.
The top six tacklers from 2018 are no longer around, and the defense yielded 253.2 passing yards per game along with 26 touchdowns in the air. Fisher made defensive backs a priority in recruiting, and some of the new additions will likely get thrown into the fire, literally, regardless of the opponent.
The front seven will be led by linemen like Justin Madubuike, big nose tackle Bobby Brown III and former 5-star prospect Tyree Johnson, while many of the linebackers are coming off injuries. So the interior defense has the potential to be a strength.
Just matching last year’s nine wins could be a big step forward for Texas A&M, but Fisher isn’t talking that way. Despite the schedule he called being described as a spoiler team “condescending” as SEC media days.
“We don't want to spoil anything,” he said. “We want to take care of our own, and they are great teams. But we expect to play with them and compete with them and win those games. That's why we're here. We are not looking to spoil anything. We're looking to win something and go about our business and do the things we have to do. They are great programs, but Texas A&M can be the same way.”
This is the third story in a series examining Alabama’s SEC opponents this season.
• Ole Miss