Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney have had a friendly, productive rivalry. Hopefully for Fisher and the Aggies, the best is yet to come.
Fisher won the national championship in 2013 at Florida State by rallying late to beat second-ranked Auburn in the title game, capping a 14-0 season. Many forget that FSU’s biggest game of the regular season was the Seminoles’ 51-14 thrashing at third-ranked Clemson. That was Clemson’s lone Atlantic Coast Conference loss of the season. Fisher made it three straight victories over the Tigers the following season en route to the Seminoles’ third straight ACC title.
But Clemson and Swinney got the upper hand on Florida State and Fisher the following season and haven’t let up. Clemson has won four straight ACC titles. Swinney also has beaten Fisher four straight times, winning a pair of national championships in the process and taking a 5-4 lead in their personal series.
Fisher’s best four-year span as a head coach is 49-6, but Swinney has trumped that by going 55-4 in the last four seasons, putting himself dead even with Alabama’s Nick Saban, also 55-4 with the other pair of national titles in that span.
Fisher has been able to continue his rivalry with Swinney thanks to A&M dropping a home-and-home series with Oregon five years ago and replacing it with Clemson. A&M scheduled the Oregon series a decade ago while in the Big 12 Conference, but a clause in the contract gave A&M an out if it changed conferences. So the Aggies dropped Oregon, which had seven straight 10-win seasons from 2009-14, for Clemson, which hadn’t had a 10-win season since 1990 until Swinney got things rolling in 2011. The Tigers now have strung together eight straight 10-win seasons with no end to the run in sight.
A&M has those kind of aspirations under Fisher, who might have to start beating his old rival if he wants to bring a national championship to Aggieland. Saturday’s matchup at Clemson is the last scheduled game between the schools, but if A&M becomes good enough to reach the College Football Playoffs in the next few years, odds are good the Aggies will meet Swinney and Clemson, which has made four CFP appearances, second to only Alabama, which has been in all six.
Clemson has reached the point where it reloads, not rebuilds, like Alabama. Clemson will start seven underclassmen against the Aggies with 15 more listed as main backups. Alabama starts six underclassmen with 14 more as main backups.
The Tigers and Crimson Tide aren’t going to drop off, so the Aggies will have to catch them — they can’t expect Clemson and Alabama to fall to them. A&M, which was a solid 9-4 in Fisher’s first season, will have several chances this season to measure its progress. The Aggies have one of the nation’s toughest schedules, now boasting five Top 10 opponents after Auburn climbed to 10th following its victory over Oregon. Clemson and second-ranked Alabama, third-ranked Georgia and sixth-ranked LSU are also on A&M’s schedule.
It’s a great lineup, but the opponents that matter most by far are Clemson and Alabama. Third-ranked Georgia is in position to make the CFP for the second time in three years, but until coach Kirby Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator, can beat his former boss the Bulldogs are a huge step behind them. LSU and Auburn could be good this season, but neither has made the CFP. And LSU coach Ed Orgeron and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn are just as likely to be fired as they are to coach in the national semifinals. Fisher has beaten them both when it mattered most, Orgeron last year in their first meeting and Malzahn when the Seminoles rallied late to win the national title in 2013.
Fisher, who had the nation’s fourth-ranked 2019 recruiting class, has overhauled a program that has only six seniors. A&M, which will replace Clemson and Georgia on next season’s schedule with Colorado and Vanderbilt, will be a Top 10 team to open 2020. How high A&M is ranked and where it is in the CFP pecking order depends on this season, not just the wins and losses against the ranked teams but how it fares against Clemson and Alabama. They’ve set the standard that Fisher and the Aggies want to attain.