College football is probably America’s most static sport. Every year, the same few teams recruit the best players, take up most of the College Football Playoff spots, and win the national title. Accordingly, any time someone outside the inner circle threatens to crash the party, it’s a big deal—especially if that team is Texas A&M.
Passions run high in this football program. The Aggies have one of the sport’s most devoted (rivals would say deranged) fanbases. The school has such high football expectations that it spent over $483 million to renovate its home stadium, and then it offered Jimbo Fisher a $75 million, fully guaranteed contract—at the time the largest guarantee in college football history—to lure him into coaching in said stadium.
We are one day closer to this.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) July 26, 2021
Now those big bets might be paying off: In 2021, Texas A&M is poised to make a run for the national title. The Aggies won their last eight games in 2020 and finished fourth in the postseason AP Poll. That was their second-best finish behind their lone national championship season, 1939, when they finished No. 1. When the preseason poll comes out later in August, A&M will likely reach its highest spot there since the ‘90s. Message boards across the college football internet have already lit up with Aggie discussion.
But are the Aggies worth the hype? Here are three reasons why they are—and the one big reason why they might falter this season.
Texas A&M’s defense will be one of the country’s best.
Defensive coordinator Mike Elko is one of the most highly regarded assistant coaches in college football. He prefers a 4-2-5 defensive scheme with four down linemen, two linebackers, and five players in the secondary. This year, he has the perfect roster for his system.
The Aggies have nine defensive starters returning this season, and they have several standout players on the line and in the defensive backfield. The 4-2-5 leans heavily on exactly those position groups: The four linemen to generate pressure without many linebacker blitzes, and the five DBs to rein in SEC spread passing games.
Safety Demani Richardson and cornerback Myles Jones figure to be two of the best secondary players in the SEC, the sport’s most challenging conference. Defensive end/outside linebacker DeMarvin Leal should be a one-man pressure machine against opposing QBs.
The offense has some of college football’s best skill-position weapons.
With Florida’s Kyle Pitts now in the NFL, there’s an argument to be made that A&M’s Jalen Wydermyer will be the best tight end in college football. The Aggies also have what could be the SEC’s most versatile offensive threat in running back/receiver hybrid player Ainias Smith. A&M will probably maximize his versatility by using him as a ball-carrier on some plays and also motioning him around the formation to create mismatches and defensive confusion.
Running back Isaiah Spiller was All-SEC in 2020 and might be the best returning back in the conference. But he’s not the only exciting back on the roster. The Aggies also have Devon Achane, a two-sport athlete who also runs track. You guessed it: Achane is fast. On 43 carries in 2020, he had 12 runs of 10-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
Jimbo Fisher is a program builder, and he might have the timing right in 2020.
Only five active coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision have won a national championship at that level as a head coach: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, North Carolina’s Mack Brown (while at Texas), and the Aggies’ Fisher, who won his title in 2013 at Florida State. His title season in Tallahassee was his fourth as head coach, and 2021 will be his fourth year leading the Aggies.
The comparison is more symmetrically pleasing than perfect—he also served as FSU’s offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach—but the operative point is that Fisher takes a few years to remake a roster in his image and then set it loose. He might have the same thing going on this fall.
There’s just one problem: A&M doesn’t have a clear answer at football’s most important position.
Four-year starting quarterback Kellen Mond, who got to A&M a year before Fisher did, left for the NFL Draft after the 2020 season. Mond was not a superstar, but he improved considerably near the end of his career and gave the Aggies everything they needed last fall: 19 touchdown passes, three interceptions, 7.7 yards per attempt, and a win against everyone but Alabama.
There is no obvious heir to Mond. On the other hand, whoever does succeed him might turn out to be pretty good. That player will be either Haynes King, a four-star recruit who joined the team in 2020, or Zach Calzada, a three-star who arrived in 2019. King is more of a dual threat than Calzada, with a higher likelihood of beating defenses as a runner as well as a passer. If Calzada wins the starting job, it’ll be because Fisher likes his accuracy and management of the offense. (It might be a point in Calzada’s favor that Fisher historically has favored traditional drop-back passers, an archetype Calzada fits better than King.)
Either player might be good. But neither has had meaningful game experience, and the Aggies do not appear to have any safer options.
If the QB situation resolves in the Aggies’ favor, 2021 should be a big year.
The SEC West is the hardest division in college football, but it could soften a bit this season. Auburn is in transition as first-year head coach Bryan Harsin tries to build out his program. LSU’s defense was terrible last fall, and that team’s leadership has off-the-field issues to contend with. Even Alabama could take a step back this year.
Mond’s departure leaves the keys in the hands of two relatively unknown QBs, but even so, the 2021 season is shaping up to be A&M’s best title shot in over 80 years.
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