Coach Jimbo Fisher makes his debut at Texas A&M on Thursday night against Northwestern State in what will be his team’s only tuneup before a huge test against second-ranked Clemson.
Fisher left Florida State for a 10-year, $75 million contract with the Aggies that comes with the expectation that he’ll elevate Texas A&M into college football’s elite.
The Aggies haven’t reached double-digit wins since Johnny Manziel helped them to an 11-2 record in his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2012. They went 7-5 and 4-4 in the Southeastern Conference last season, leaving them with plenty of work to do to even be talked about as one of the top teams in their conference, much less the country.
Still, Fisher believes he can win in College Station and that his new team is buying into a coaching philosophy that helped him lead the Seminoles to a national title in 2013 and three Atlantic Coast Conference championships.
“I feel confident about our football team,” Fisher said. “I like our football team ... (got a) long way to go, nowhere close to where we need to be and can be. But as they continue to grow in what we’re trying to do it will get better and better.”
Fans will get their first look at Fisher’s squad when the Aggies host the Demons, an FCS team from the Southland Conference. They also have a new coach who will be making his debut at the school in Brad Laird, a longtime defensive coordinator for the team who also holds the school’s record for career yards passing.
“We’re at the point where we just want to line up and play against somebody else,” Laird said. “Northwestern State has been playing against Northwestern State since last spring, and finally, we get that opportunity to tee it up and go against somebody else Thursday night.”
Neither coach has named a starting quarterback for the opener with two players competing for the job at each school.
At Texas A&M, Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel, who both started games last season, are vying for the position. Fisher said the qualities he values most in a quarterback are decision-making and accuracy and said both players have excelled in both throughout camp.
“I feel very comfortable that both guys can go in and play winning football,” he said.
Mond said the competition has been beneficial to both quarterbacks.
“We have a good relationship and I feel like we’ve bonded a little bit closer this year just trying to find one common goal,” he said. “No matter who’s the starter or who’s playing we’ve both got to lead and make sure we’re at our best to help this team.”
Northwestern State senior Clay Holgorsen and junior Shelton Eppler are up for the job. Laird is likely to play both against the Aggies.
“They both earned that opportunity,” he said. “We evaluate them in the different phases of spring ball, summer work and now fall camp and they both have earned the right to play. I want to make sure is they understand the nature of how this is going to go. You never want the starter to look over his shoulder.”
While there are questions at quarterback for the Aggies, running back could be the most stable position on the team with junior Trayveon Williams leading the way. Williams became the first true freshman in school history to run for 1,000 yards when he piled up 1,057 in 2016. He followed that up by rushing for 798 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He’s also a threat in the passing game and had 20 receptions for 192 yards last season.
This will be the first meeting between these teams and the first time Northwestern State has met an SEC team since losing 62-13 to Mississippi State in 2015. The Aggies will look to extend their home non-conference winning streak to 29 games. They haven’t lost a non-conference game in College Station since a 41-23 loss to Miami in 2008.