Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher has told his team to block out the chatter surrounding Saturday’s game at top-ranked Clemson and focus on the task at hand, treating the Tigers as just another faceless opponent.
That down-to-earth approach has to be a tall task for even the veteran coach considering Fisher has lost four straight to Clemson and is 0-3 against top-ranked teams.
Preparing for his 15th game at A&M since being lured from Florida State, Fisher has done a good job getting his players to play well no matter the opponent or circumstances. Last season’s team gave eventual national champion Clemson arguably its toughest battle of the year in a 28-26 loss, and two weeks later A&M made a competitive showing in a 45-23 loss at top-ranked Alabama. A&M also rebounded from disappointing losses at Mississippi State and Auburn to close out the season on a four-game winning streak that included a 74-72 seven-overtime victory over LSU, the program’s first victory over the Tigers since joining the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
Now the fans expect much more from the 12th-ranked Aggies, and much more is possible, for A&M is facing one of the toughest schedules in school history that includes the nation’s top three ranked teams this preseason — Clemson, Alabama and Georgia. Only three other teams in the history of college football have faced that. A&M also has to play sixth-ranked LSU and 10th-ranked Auburn, which crashed the Top 10 this week after beating 11th-ranked Oregon.
By the luck of the draw, the Aggies get tested by the best first.
“It’s the next opportunity,” Fisher said. “I think that’s the thing you’ve got to understand. There’s a lot of them on [the schedule], but this is the next one, the one you got to focus on. They’re the defending national champs, No. 1 in the country, and you have to go in and play it like that. But before you play the game, you have to prepare, and I think that’s what we have to do is a great job of preparing going into the week and not being ready to play until it’s time to play but understanding how to prepare. It’s a heck of an opportunity, and that’s what you need.”
A&M, which has only six seniors on the roster, might have showed some inexperience in preparing for a game as a huge underdog — Clemson is favored by 17 points —earlier this week when junior starting left offensive guard Jared Hocker predicted A&M would pull off the upset.
“That doesn’t need to be said,” Fisher said. “We understand the opponent and that comes from respect for them.”
Fisher said he doesn’t want his team to have a shock-the-world attitude. He just wants it to take care of business, but it would be an eye-opening upset for the Aggies and for Fisher.
A&M is 2-14 all-time against top-ranked teams, having lost four straight (all to Alabama) since beating the Crimson Tide 29-24 at Alabama in 2012. A&M had lost nine straight against top-ranked teams until beating Oklahoma 36-30 in 2002.
The average margin of defeat in the 14 losses is 26.9 points per game, a number somewhat skewed by a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma in 2003. Only four of the losses have been by single digits, though on a positive note half of them have come since A&M joined the SEC (49-42 to Alabama in 2013 and 27-19 to Alabama two years ago).
Over his career, Fisher has been a double-digit underdog only four times in 120 games, losing all four. Florida State was a 12-point underdog at third-ranked Clemson in 2015, losing 23-13. The Seminoles were a 16-point underdog at fourth-ranked Clemson in 2017, and the Tigers won 31-14. A&M was a 12-point underdog to Clemson last season and also was a 26-point underdog at Alabama. The game at Alabama was close until the final seven minutes of the first half when the Crimson Tide expanded a four-point lead to 18.
Making Saturday’s task tougher for A&M is the venue, Memorial Stadium, dubbed “Death Valley.” Clemson has won 27 of its last 28 games there.
“It’s one of the best places to play in college football,” Fisher said. “It’ll be loud, a lot of orange — if you like orange, there will be a lot of that. There will be a lot of happy fans. They’re a great fan base, tremendous fan base, classy fan base, but very loud.”
Fisher, whose Seminoles rolled to a 51-14 victory at Clemson in 2013 en route to the national championship, compares Death Valley to an SEC venue.
“It’s 80-some or 90,000 ... whatever it is, and they love their ball, and they’re very good and they’re passionate about this for sure,” Fisher said. “This is one of the places you want to be able to say you played there when you were a player, one of the venues you want to be able to coach in. You definitely want to have been to Death Valley. It’s a great atmosphere in college.”