HOOVER, Ala. — Texas A&M is closing the gap on Alabama, but a few teams hope to beat the Aggies before they topple the Crimson Tide.
The Aggies haven’t beaten Alabama since their first season in the Southeastern Conference, but A&M has been competitive since a 59-0 thumping in 2014. A&M lost 27-19 two years ago, holding Alabama to 355 yards, and while the average margin of victory in the other games were 19.7 points, each turned on a couple of plays. Alabama returned three interceptions for touchdowns in 2015; flipped a one-point deficit into a two-touchdown lead by taking advantage of a penalty and fumble in ‘16; and scored 10 points off turnovers last year.
A&M has pulled even closer off the field. A&M’s incoming class was ranked sixth by Rivals.com, four spots behind Alabama, the closest A&M finished behind the Crimson Tide since it hired Nick Saban. It also matches the A&M’s highest-ranked class since joining the SEC and was the fourth top 10 class in six years. A&M has the talent and depth to beat Alabama. It also has Jimbo Fisher, one of four active coaches not named Saban who has won a national championships. Fisher was 9-4 last season, raising expectations, though the Aggies have their toughest schedule in two decades with College Football Playoff contenders Clemson, Alabama and Georgia, along with LSU. Many believe A&M’s best chance for a win is Alabama because the game is at Kyle Field.
Fisher’s first season was a success because of his victory over LSU, ending A&M’s seven-game losing streak in the series. Beating Alabama and becoming the first former Saban assistant to beat the game’s best coach would be bigger. Beating Clemson or Georgia would be almost as big. It’s a season loaded with opportunities.
But on the flip side, several teams view the A&M game the same way. Three of them — Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina — shared the spotlight with Alabama at the Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday.
Arkansas has lost seven straight games to A&M. Arkansas has come close with four games decided by a touchdown, three in OT. Arkansas was encouraged in a 24-17 loss a year ago during a 2-10 season (0-8 in the SEC). A victory over A&M in the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium would be a program-changer for second-year coach Chad Morris.
“Every game has significance to it, [and] it’s also a trophy game, so trophy games are hyped up a little bit more,” defensive tackle McTelvin Agim said. “It’s not even about us, it’s about the fans. I know fans want that win as well. They want it as much as we do, so we gotta get it for the fans. We gotta get that trophy back for the fans.”
More incentive comes from Morris, a Texan from Edgewood who graduated from A&M in 1992.
“It adds a little bit more, so he can have bragging rights when he goes home,” Agim said.
Mississippi State rallied for a 28-13 victory over A&M, which along with a victory over Auburn helped make the Bulldogs’ season. Fisher gets a pass for the loss, but former A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was only 6-6 against the Mississippi schools, which contributed to his ouster. MSU second-year coach Joe Moorhead getting a second straight victory over Fisher in the battle of offensive-minded coaches would be impressive.
South Carolina is winless against the Aggies, having lost five straight since A&M joined the SEC in 2012. Three of the losses have been by a touchdown, including the last two games. South Carolina is in dire need of a headline victory after going 1-11 against ranked teams in the last three seasons.
South Carolina has a tougher schedule than Texas A&M, also facing Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Clemson.
“Hell, the schedule’s hard every year,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “That is the way I look at it. We have a great opportunity to step forward as a program to be in the limelight on Saturdays in the Southeastern Conference and take advantage of the opportunities we have in front of us.”
That doesn’t sound much different from what Fisher has been saying. Not surprisingly Fisher and Muschamp were assistants at LSU under Saban, who has set the gold standard when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities.
Robert Cessna’s email address is email@example.com