by Travis Normand
May 9, 2018
While looking at Texas A&M’s 2018 football schedule I noticed that the majority (five) of A&M’s conference games are on the road while only three are at Kyle Field. The Aggies start conference play by going to Alabama on September 22, and other than a quick pit-stop at Kyle Field against Kentucky on October 6th, the Aggies don’t return home until they play Ole Miss on November 10. In other words, most of the action for this years’ Aggie team will happen on the road; however, Texas A&M plays Clemson at Kyle Field on September 8 and LSU on November 24, which will hopefully make up for the lack of home conference games (a quality over quantity argument, if you will).
As for the lack of home games, continuing to play Arkansas in Arlington obviously doesn’t help as this game has been perpetually lost to the metroplex. If not for the agreement to play this game in Arlington, the Aggies would potentially add a SEC home game to the 2018 schedule.
Speaking of the Hogs, the game against Arkansas is, in my opinion, the most important game on the Aggies’ 2018 schedule. Why? Well, how many reasons do you want?
To start with, here is how I am defining the “most important game” versus all the other important and can’t lose games on the schedule (keep in mind, the ingredients used in this year’s recipe is different than what will be used in other seasons). So, here is how I would define the “most important game:” (1) I look for the one game that is an absolute “must-win” (as a loss would be considered a step-backwards for the program); (2) while there are most likely several must-win games, the one that is not a sure thing or that might be considered a “coin-flip” game (i.e. only a 50/50 chance of winning), is more important than a must-win game that you are very likely to win; and (3) if there is more than one game that fits the first two criteria, or if there are other games that don’t quite fit but are still considered extremely important, we look to other factors surrounding the games and/or season to determine which of the remaining games is more important to the overall success of the program at this point in time. Once you have gone through this evaluation, the game you are left with in the end is your “most important game” for that season. When I go through this process, I am left with the Arkansas game.
A must-win game is one that would be considered a step-backward for the program if you were to lose it. In reviewing the games on A&M’s 2018 schedule, here are my thoughts as to why Arkansas is a bigger step-backward than the others.
First, the Aggies have won the last six games against the Hogs and in order to “move forward” a team must continue to win games against the teams that it regularly defeats. The Hogs fall squarely into this category. While the Aggies want to win every game, it is one thing to lose to a team like Auburn or Mississippi State as these are both road games in 2018 and the Aggies are 3-3 against both since joining the SEC, thus neither is a team that A&M regularly defeats (regardless of whether or not they should be). Dropping a game against a team that you have defeated six times in a row is totally different than losing a game against a team you are only .500 against, and thus Arkansas appears to be much more of a “must win.”
I would also put Ole Miss in the same category as MSU and Auburn, as the Aggies are 3-3 against the Rebels since joining the SEC. However, the home game against Ole Miss is slightly more important as A&M needs to start winning these home games if they want to take the next step forward (lately, winning home games has not been a given). The Aggies cannot expect to compete for the SEC West if they can’t win the games they play at Kyle Field, and that alone is almost enough to say that the Ole Miss game is more important than the Arkansas game. However, for the other reasons listed, I still think the Arkansas game is more important than the game against Ole Miss (as A&M will have other opportunities to show that it can win its home games in 2018; and even if losing to Ole Miss keeps A&M from a perfect home record, I don’t think A&M needs to have a perfect home record in 2018 to move forward as a program).
As for Alabama, I don’t see a lot of shame in losing to Alabama (again), as after all, its Alabama. A team should take great pride in defeating the Crimson Tide (especially on the road, as A&M did back in 2012), but a loss is not an indication of moving backwards. Plus, before A&M needs to concern itself with regularly defeating the Tide, the Aggies need to find a way to win the home games and other SEC “coin-flip” games on their schedule. Once they get that figured out, they can turn their attention to whether a win or loss over Alabama is going to make or break their season. For this reason, I don’t see Alabama as must-win in 2018.
As a side note, IF A&M finds a way to beat Clemson and/or Alabama, that would be a huge win (or wins) for the program. There is no denying that both Alabama and Clemson have been two of the best programs over the past several years. Defeating them would be huge wins, but losing either (or both) is not devastating to what the Aggies are trying to accomplish in 2018. Therefore, I would consider a win over these two teams to be monumental, but they are not must-win games due to the fact that a loss would not be devastating. (However, if A&M goes into the Arkansas game with a 2-2 record, beating Arkansas will be crucial to getting the 2018 season back on track while a loss would be devastating.)
The Aggies also play conference opponents South Carolina, Kentucky, and LSU.
A&M is 4-0 all-time against South Carolina, so dropping a game against South Carolina would be almost as bad as dropping a game against Arkansas, however, South Carolina is in the Eastern division and a loss wouldn’t hurt the Aggies’ standings in the West division as much as a loss to Arkansas would. Further, the streak over South Carolina is only four, and not six. So, while I don’t want to see A&M break the streak against South Carolina, I consider Arkansas more of a must-win game.
Losing to Kentucky would be a huge blow to the Aggies’ ego for two reasons: (1) the game against the Wildcats is one of only three opportunities for the Aggies to pick up a conference win at home in 2018; and (2) because Kentucky is considered to be (traditionally) an easy win for most SEC teams. While I can understand the argument that all of this makes Kentucky a must-win, the argument (for me) doesn’t hold up when compared to Arkansas.
What about LSU? A win over the Tigers has been more than elusive, to say the least. The last time the Aggies defeated the Tigers was in 1995, and the two teams have played seven times since then (six of those being SEC games). In other words, LSU has a winning streak over A&M just like A&M has over Arkansas. However, like I said above regarding both Clemson and Alabama, a win over LSU (at Kyle Field) would be huge for the program, and would definitely count as a step-forward. However, where I get hung up is that I think a loss to LSU would be just another day at the office. Failing to get over the LSU “hump” in 2018 is not devastating to what A&M is trying to build especially depending on how the rest of the season plays out. While I agree that A&M needs to start winning their home games (and beating LSU is a chance to do that), a loss is simply maintaining the status-quo; while a win over LSU would be a welcomed step-forward. Either way, if A&M loses to LSU but defeats Arkansas, they have not taken a step back or forward, and have simply maintained the status quo. I don’t think anyone is looking to maintain the status quo at A&M, but for right now, it is better than stepping backwards.
As for the out of conference games, those opponents consist of Northwestern State, Clemson, UL Monroe, and UAB. Other than Clemson, a loss to any of these teams is pretty much unacceptable. Not only are they home games, but they are games you are supposed to win (especially games against UAB, who recently shut-down and then restarted its football program). Losing one of these games would be devastating and would qualify as a step-backward, but I would think that at this point, we would have to consider our chances of winning these games much better than 50 percent.
Having reviewed the schedule, I am left with Arkansas being the must-win game, as well as a game that is not a guaranteed victory by any stretch. However, I would agree that there are several others that might arguably fit this characterization (like LSU or Ole Miss). For this reason I took a few other factors into consideration and believe that these clearly separate the Arkansas game from all the others and put it over the top as the most important game of the 2018 season for Texas A&M.
So what exactly are these other factors?
First, A&M just went out and hired Jimbo Fisher and agreed to pay him $75 million over the next 10 years. You don’t hire a coach for this kind of money only to see your program take a step backwards. In other words, sitting in neutral for one season and maintaining the status quo is fine, as long as there are signs of progress. However, undoing something that wasn’t a problem before is cause for some concern. So, if there is a team (Arkansas) that you have been beating consistently over the past six years, you expect that trend to continue. The new coach needs to, at the very least, continue all of the current positive trends while also working to fix the negative ones. If he loses to Arkansas, but finds a way to beat Mississippi State, he has essentially traded one positive for a negative, which is a net result of zero. There is simply no reason why, after beating Arkansas six straight times, that A&M should suddenly turn around and lose to the Hogs simply because they hired a new coach (and according to A&M, they hired the best coach available and paid top dollar).
Second, Arkansas has also hired a new coach, and to some, a victory in Arlington will fuel the argument of “our new coach is better than yours” (especially if Arkansas gets the win, as their claim will be “our new coach is better than yours, and we paid half-price”).
Arkansas’ new coach is Chad Morris, an up-and-coming coach that was once one of the hottest offensive coordinators on the market. It is no secret that Arkansas is not paying nearly as much for Morris as A&M is paying for Fisher, and one would like to think that the money A&M is spending is worth it. If all that money can’t keep a six game winning streak alive, some might be wondering how Arkansas was able to reverse the streak on such a discount. Further, while I have no idea if Morris had any interest in actually coaching at A&M, one would have to think that A&M could have hired Morris if they wanted to considering Morris is an Aggie (Class of 1992). I have little doubt that Morris would have come to A&M for half of what A&M is paying Fisher, and considering that, if Arkansas can reverse their losing streak against A&M, I would have to consider that a step in the wrong direction for the Aggies.
Finally, before the 2015 season, Texas A&M went out and stole LSU’s defensive coordinator John Chavis. A&M paid a hefty price for Chavis and even fought a legal dispute regarding some contractual issues. In the end, A&M had one of the most sought-after defensive-minded coaches in the game. Unfortunately, A&M’s defense never really improved under Chavis and he was let go after the 2017 season. Chavis is now the DC at Arkansas, and losing to a team that is run by coaches that you recently fired for not being good enough is never fun (especially if Arkansas wins the game on defense).
Further, if you consider A&M’s history against John Chavis led defenses, it only makes matters worse. In January of 2005, Texas A&M played Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl and lost by 31 points while only finding the end zone once (38-7). Six years later, in January 2011, A&M played in the Cotton Bowl again, only this time Chavis was the DC for LSU; the final score was LSU 41, Texas A&M 24. Of course the Aggies then played LSU and their Chavis led defense three more times (2012, 2013, and 2014). LSU won every one of those three contests by scores of 24-19, 34-10, and 23-17. These results make it pretty easy to see why A&M went out of its way to hire Chavis away from LSU, but despite the hire, A&M never experienced the same results and as I said above, let Chavis go after 2017. The idea that Chavis could beat A&M with his defense at Tennessee and LSU, but couldn’t field a proper defense in favor of A&M, is already a source of frustration. Having to watch Chavis beat the Aggies again with another SEC opponent (Arkansas) would be simply maddening, and is not a pill that any Aggie is willing to swallow.
I’m sure that if I sat here long enough, I could convince myself that losing to Arkansas is not that big of a deal, but when I review all the factors listed above, it becomes harder and harder to do. For all of these reasons, it is clear to me that Arkansas is Texas A&M’s most important game of the 2018 season.