With Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M’s excitement more about big picture than Clemson visit

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – There’s no way to know if this actually happened. But there’s also no reason to doubt Jimbo Fisher when he says that shortly after he agreed to leave Florida State to become Texas A&M’s head football coach – you might’ve heard, he got $75 million for 10 years – he checked the 2018 schedule and did a double take.

Right there, in Week 2: CLEMSON.

Fisher’s reaction: “You’ve got to be – really?”

Yes, really. And really, it’s what the Aggies had in mind when they hired Fisher. Just not right away.

Which is why, even with a huge spotlight focused on Aggieland this weekend, the buzz seems to be more about the big picture than whatever might happen Saturday against the No. 2-ranked Tigers.

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“We’re just looking for a good game,” says Jake Swinnea, a second-generation Aggie (Class of 2011) whose family owns and maintains the “Aggie Barn,” a landmark on Texas Highway 6 near the hamlet of Reagan, a little less than an hour from College Station. Painted maroon and white, the structure features a cartoon “Ol’ Sarge” and the phrase “GIG ‘EM AGGIES,” and it’s a favorite backdrop for photographs.

“We’re just expecting steps forward,” Swinnea continues. “If earth-shattering happens, we’ll be good with it.”

Contrast that with the mood not quite five years ago this month, and the countdown to kickoff of a home game with Alabama. The pervasive vibe then was of ascendancy. 

A year earlier, in its first season in the SEC, Texas A&M had gone 11-2. A kid quarterback nicknamed Johnny Football had bedeviled, then beaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. Johnny Manziel was back; this time, the Tide was coming to Kyle Field. The Aggies were on their way to everything they’d ever wanted.

“It was unreal,” says Drew Bettiol, another longtime fan. “The energy, you just felt it.”

Also unreal, as it turned out: the notion A&M had arrived as a power. Before the 2013 season started, then-athletic director Eric Hyman joked during a booster function that the Aggies were like the moon, because “both control the Tide.” It was a great line, but of course they did not (Nick Saban did, and does). ‘Bama won 49-42, barely besting Manziel, and A&M settled into a pattern of good but not great seasons.

In the wake of that 2012 season, recruiting surged. For $485 million, Kyle Field was rebuilt and expanded (to 102,000, making it the largest in the SEC and – this is important – bigger than rival Texas’ stadium). But on-field results didn’t follow, at least not to the stratospheric levels many expected, which is why Kevin Sumlin was fired last November and why they gave Fisher all that money to replace him.

And it’s probably why this time around, the atmosphere seems more subdued. Students are camping out for tickets. ESPN’s traveling road show College GameDay is coming. But when Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward describes a “quiet confidence,” he’s referring to the program’s trajectory, not to Saturday.

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