COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Four days after an angst-filled win over a cellar-dwelling Arkansas team, Jimbo Fisher took his customary Wednesday night seat inside a local barbecue joint.
The place — Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q — was packed, as scores of fans munched on brisket, ribs and cream corn while attentively listening to the thousands of words the fast-talking Texas A&M coach spoke for his weekly radio show.
If there’s apprehension about where the Aggies are in Year 2 under Fisher, following a deflating loss to Auburn and a closer-than-they-preferred win over the Razorbacks, it didn’t show here. Fans faithfully lined up in between commercial breaks to shake hands, snap selfies and obtain autographs from the head coach. One fan asked Fisher to sign her insulin pump. Another brought a print from a local artist for Fisher to sign. It depicted key players and moments from the Aggies’ signature seven-overtime win from Fisher’s maiden voyage. On the bottom is the score, with LSU’s 72 on the left, A&M’s 74 on the right.
“Greatest game ever,” 1976 A&M graduate Connie Carson said as she presented it to him.
Yes, there’s still plenty of love for Jimbo Fisher in Aggieland, even if his sophomore season hasn’t gone so swimmingly. But as No. 1 Alabama (5-0) comes to town Saturday to face the No. 24 Aggies (3-2) for a pivotal barometer game, it’s widely understood, even by the coach himself, that better results are desired.
“We want results as fast as everybody else does,” Fisher told ESPN this week, “but we’re going to keep the process of what we’re doing and doing it right.
“Everybody wants it tomorrow, and I do, too.”
The harsh reality of the preseason’s most overstated, but accurate talking point — the Aggies’ arduous schedule, which currently has five of the country’s top 12 teams — is setting in. Saturday will mark the second time Texas A&M plays the team ranked No. 1 in the country; Clemson was the top-ranked team when the Aggies lost to the Tigers in Week 2. The last time a team did that in the regular season was 2009.
The challenge is steep.
“This is what we signed up for,” receiver Jhamon Ausbon said.
During SEC Media Days in July, Fisher was asked about the thought of calling the Aggies a potential “spoiler” given their tough schedule.
At the time, he called it “condescending.”
“We don’t want to spoil anything,” Fisher said on July 16. “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.”
However, unless the Aggies win the remainder of their games — which includes this weekend’s tilt with Alabama, as well as road games against Georgia and LSU — that’s essentially the role they’ll play this season.
It’s not entirely unexpected; this is not a ready-made championship-caliber team. The Aggies are still trying to find their way under their second-year coach. But after a 9-4 campaign in 2018, in which the Aggies were closer than anyone else to knocking off national champion Clemson, beat LSU and capped it off with an impressive bowl victory, optimism was prevalent coming into the year, schedule be damned.
Instead of looking like a team that’s making progress, the Aggies were flat offensively against Clemson and Auburn, failing to score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of each contest as those opponents built three-score leads.
“It’s just frustrating when you put in all this work and you don’t come out on Saturdays,” Ausbon said. “You only get 12 opportunities to put it on the film. … These opportunities don’t last forever, so you’ve got to make the most of them.”
Many of the issues are personnel-based. Some losses from the 2018 team have cut deeper than others. The seven Aggies chosen in this year’s NFL draft was a program record. Replacing a multiyear starting center in Erik McCoy, who’s having an impressive rookie season with the New Orleans Saints, hasn’t been easy.
The same goes for two other key positions in Fisher’s offense — running back and tight end — where season-ending injuries to Jashaun Corbin and Baylor Cupp have made it that much more challenging to replace Trayveon Williams and Jace Sternberger, both of whom were All-SEC picks last season.
The result has been an ineffective running game and a lot placed on the shoulders of quarterback Kellen Mond. In the Aggies’ losses to Clemson and Auburn, Mond attempted 42 and 49 passes, respectively. Since Fisher arrived, the Aggies are 1-4 when Mond attempts at least 40 passes and 11-2 when he throws it fewer than 40 times (for good measure, they’re 9-0 in the Fisher era when Mond has fewer than 30 pass attempts).
Though the pieces around Mond have been in flux, Fisher has been pleased with the junior quarterback’s development.
“He loves the competition and he’ll be right there and he’ll be the first one out there working his tail off,” Fisher said. “He’s getting better and better each and every week.”
The defense, which took a huge step forward last season, has been solid, but far from perfect. Defensive tackle Bobby Brown III lamented the mental mistakes they made against Clemson, noting that the defensive line alone had 20 missed assignments. Against Auburn, “our eyes got lazy” against the Tigers’ misdirection and the Aggies didn’t respond accordingly.
“We beat ourselves,” Brown said. “It wasn’t that they didn’t play well or anything like that. They were the better team [those] nights. Both of those games, we beat ourselves. We took ourselves out of the equation to win.”
Ask the players and the coaches and they’ll all agree — they have yet to play a game up to their own standard.
“Even against Lamar,” Brown said of the Aggies 62-3 win over the FCS foe.
After getting outclassed in their two losses, they’ve learned an important lesson.
“You cannot help a good team win,” safety Keldrick Carper said.
In addition to losing seven NFL draftees, the Aggies have just six seniors on the roster, the fewest in the SEC. They’re one of the youngest teams in the Power 5, using that metric.
“We’re in the founding stages of building this program,” Fisher said.
It’s not uncommon for results to come slowly after coaching changes. Tom Herman, the coach of Texas A&M’s in-state rival, Texas, is in his third season with the Longhorns and noted how he and his staff are no longer coaching players on practice habits and how they want things done. But much of his first two seasons were spent focusing on those things.
Fisher talks of a similar process in Aggieland.
“The program’s young in how we do things and the culture we’re creating and creating the mentality to win and understand how to win and all the little things that go with it,” Fisher told ESPN. “That’s an educational process. … And I think we’re right on track with where we’re going.”
Several veteran players have admitted that some of the younger players on the A&M roster are still adjusting to how Fisher and his staff want things done.
“At what point are we going to decide that every play it’s important for each guy to do their part and do their assignment?” Ausbon said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s really just a matter of coming out and doing it.”
Said defensive tackle Justin Madubuike: “There’s no secret pill to this. You’ve just got to keep working, keep trusting coach’s plan, and keep getting our bodies right and keep doing the little things, because those little things will add up to the big.”
No reasonable observer expected this Texas A&M team, with this schedule, to be a national championship contender this year.
But when the school gave Fisher a massive guaranteed contract to lure him away from Florida State and the chancellor gave him a national championship plaque with the dates to be filled in, it sent a message for what the expectations are.
So when the Aggies fall behind Clemson 24-3 or trail Auburn 21-3 at home it’s convenient to say “they’re paying $75 million for that?”
It’s an easy talking point, one that was used early and often when discussing the job status of Fisher’s A&M predecessor, Kevin Sumlin. Every year the Aggies started 5-0 only to finish 8-5, critics would similarly point to the $30 million guaranteed Texas A&M gave Sumlin to bolster their argument of unmet expectations.
Until the Aggies are in the playoff conversation, Fisher’s 10-year deal will likely become similar fodder.
Fisher understands that and says it doesn’t bother him.
“That’s what people are gonna say,” Fisher said. “I understand why they say it. I don’t hold that against them. I’m not mad. I get it. I want to be successful, too. But the process to win is a process.”
The Aggies have the identical record they did at this time last year, under similar circumstances. In 2018, their first two losses came to two top-five teams, Clemson and Alabama, and they had an uncomfortably-close win over Arkansas. That squad went on to win six of its next eight to leave fans with the impression the program took a step forward.
A similar finish may be asking too much, but following the Alabama game, the Aggies have a manageable four-game stretch against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, UTSA and South Carolina, with the latter three at home. In order to match last year’s finish, they’d need to sweep that quartet while finding a way to steal one from either Alabama or from the closing two-week doozy at season’s end: at Georgia and at LSU.
And this team hasn’t played well in either of its two “big” games, as it did in 2018. Even though they lost to Clemson last September, how close they came was a confidence booster, because they felt they were close to where they needed to be. Such a feeling isn’t prevalent right now.
Fisher or the players will promise nothing except hard work and adherence to the “process,” a term Fisher uses almost as frequently as Nick Saban, whom he once worked for. This project will take time, even if fans or Fisher himself is a little anxious.
“Our whole world is impatient,” Fisher said. “But at the same time, we are, too. We’re going to grind it and it’s gonna happen. We’re in the right place.”