Did Texas A&M Football Trade One Mediocre Coach for Another?

Nov 4, 2017; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin on the sidelines against the Auburn Tigers at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 4, 2017; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin on the sidelines against the Auburn Tigers at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports /
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How each Texas A&M football coach fares in the “big game”

Another notion that I had when comparing these Aggie coaches was that Jimbo had had a much tougher road to hoe when it came to the schedule. It’s entirely possible that this was a holdover from the absolutely brutal 2019 schedule, where the 5 losses the Aggies sustained came to the teams finishing 2, 3, 4, 5, and 9 in the final SP+ rankings, and their best win came against the team that finished 36. Weird year!

As it happens, though, a close examination of the numbers will help us here too. As a quick aside, I’m going to be referencing the SP+ system a lot; this is an advanced metrics system developed by ESPN’s Bill Connelly built around measuring predictive quality of teams—i.e. what most people mean when they say how “good” a team is—rather than a resume ranking. If you want more info about this system, you can find a good (if a bit dated) explainer at this link. I will be using the order of finish each year by this metric as an indicator of how good each team is, rather than their final record—I do this to account for variables like strength of schedule and margin of victory/loss, etc.

Jimbo has won three huge games as an underdog: 2020 Florida (6th in final rankings), 2021 Alabama (3rd in final rankings), and 2022 LSU (13th in final rankings). Each of these had huge narrative heft for the program, all in different ways. 2020 Florida gave him his first signature win over a top-5 team, after he had come close in the previous season against Georgia (once out of four tries). 2021 made him the first assistant to beat Saban, showed Texas A&M football could compete with Alabama, and sparked the legendary 2022 recruiting class. 2022 showed the potential of what Texas A&M football could still be, even after one of the most unfortunate years the program had ever seen. All of these three games were against top-5 teams at Kyle Field and have come within the last three years. The 2018 LSU game should also be mentioned—though the Aggies were slight favorites in that game, it was still a victory over a top-10 team, a rival who the Aggies had never beaten since joining the conference, and one of the most memorable games in the history of college football.

The average final SP+ rating of teams Jimbo has beaten as an underdog is 7.33, and the average final SP+ rating of teams Fisher has lost to as an underdog is 10.13. This means that he is both facing and beating extremely high-level competition.

Sumlin’s top three wins all came within his first three years as coach of Texas A&M football. In 2012, he defeated Alabama (1st in final rankings) on the road in one of the biggest games in Texas A&M football’s history. That game cemented Johnny Manziel as the first-ever freshman to win the Heisman, and showed the nation that the Aggies could compete in the SEC. In 2014, the Aggies got a win that absolutely nobody saw coming against #3 Auburn on the road, one of the strangest games in a very strange series between these two programs.

The 2014 opener (colloquially known as the “Kenny Trill” game) against South Carolina (who finished 20th that year) was Sumlin’s next-biggest win as an underdog. That Gamecock team ended up 7-6, but did indeed have a pretty deadly offense—though it turns out their defense was rather poor. As with Jimbo, I should mention the biggest win Sumlin got as a favorite, which was the final game of 2012. The Cotton Bowl game against Oklahoma (4th in final rankings) was a blowout: a resounding victory over the champion of the conference the Aggies had just left, which was a great narrative-buster for Texas A&M football. I should probably mention that of these four wins, none of them took place at home—in stark contrast to Jimbo’s four biggest wins, all of which took place at Kyle.

The average SP+ ranking of teams that Sumlin defeated as an underdog was 21.29; the average SP+ ranking of teams that Sumlin lost to as an underdog was 11.33. This tells us that his record as an underdog is slightly inflated by beating lesser teams that his squad was, for one reason or another, not favored to win against.

This is a great starting point, but let’s now take this opportunity to dive further into the record for each coach.