Howdy and welcome to a special offseason edition of Fun With Numbers. With March Madness wrapped up, the Aggie baseball team muddling through a bit of a team wide slump, and Spring football moving forward, I thought it would be a good time to look at A&M Head Coaches from a historical perspective. This is inspired by (or blatantly ripped off from) this post by Arbitrary Analytics, who looked into some similar data for previous Husker coaches.
A&M and the SP+
For fun, let’s take a look at A&M’s historical SP+ ranking, going as far back as 1970, because that’s the first year we have data to work with. If you’re not familiar with the SP+ from Bill Connelly, this article is going to be mostly nonsense to you. Here’s a great explainer of it from the man himself, but the gist of it is this:
“In a single sentence, it’s a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency.”
Going back that far allows us to see the entire careers of 8 different head coaches, starting with Emory Bellard in 1972. You can see each new coach’s starting season designated by the different black shapes, with Wilson following midway through 1978 after Bellard’s resignation, Jackie Sherrill taking over in 1982, RC Slocum in 1989, Fran in 2003, Mike Sherman in 2008, Kevin Sumlin in 2012, and finally Jimbo Fisher in 2018.
The chart pretty well confirms what most people who’ve been following Aggie football that long (or have at least gone back and researched) already knew. The 70s and 80s had their ups and downs (but both Bellard and Jackie had great seasons in their time), the 90s and 2010s feature some of the best teams in school history, and 2000s are essentially a lost decade that nobody wants to talk about.
One thing that stood out to me is that despite some great seasons in the past 50 years, A&M has only finished Top 25 in both the OSP+ and DSP+ 10 times. Jimbo is responsible for 2 of them, which seems encouraging.
SP+ Rankings only mean so much though right? For instance, Mike Sherman was fired after finishing 5th in 2011 (Their best SP+ finish since 1998). The talent and ability was there for the 2011 squad, but their inability to close out games led to a disappointing season. It’s a computer metric, it’s not going to tell you everything, but it still gives a pretty good overview of a team over the years.
What else can we use this information for? Maybe determining the level of competition each coach faced in their tenure may show us something new.
A&M Head Coach Résúmes
Following Arbitrary Analytics’ lead, I broke up every opponent faced by A&M in the last 50 seasons into tiers based on their final SP+ ranking from that season. Tier 1 would be Top 10, Tier 2 is 11-25, Tier 3 is 25-75, and Tier 4 is 76+.
Since the SP+ doesn’t track FCS schools, those games are excluded from the totals (including games against teams that are now FBS but were FCS at the time). These records also includes bowl games, even if the coach wasn’t technically employed by the school at that point. Sorry Sumlin, you’ll be getting credit for Jeff Banks’ Belk Bowl loss.
The only real weird spot is Emory Bellard and Tom Wilson, since Bellard resigned midway through the ‘78 season. So the games where he coached are counted in his record, and the games after his resignation are in Wilsons. Make sense? Great, let’s take a look at Tier 1.
Right off the bat, you’ll notice two things. 1) Jimbo Fisher has faced twelve Top 10 teams in a really short amount of time (more on that later) and 2) He’s got about the same record against Top 10 teams as his last three predecessors. Mississippi State in 2018, Auburn in ‘18 and ‘19, and Georgia in ‘19 were winnable games in this tier that could have tremendously improved Jimbo’s record, but unfortunately the Ags just weren’t ready to take the next step there. It’s tough to see laid out like that, but these Tier 1 games aren’t going away anytime soon.
Other things I found interesting:
Two of Sumlin’s wins in this category were in 2012 (Bama and OU in the Cotton Bowl), and the 3rd was Auburn in 2014.
Fran’s only two wins here came against the Longhorns in his final two seasons as the HC.
Bellard having the highest Win Percentage in this tier was kind of surprising, but he started off 0-4 against Top 10 teams in his first 3 years as a HC. Wishbones take time I guess.
Sure, Jimbo hasn’t played many of these games (South Caro and Kentucky in ‘18 and UNC this past season), but being undefeated here is still pretty noteworthy. No A&M coach has been over .500 in this tier in their first three seasons, let alone averaging a full TD better than the competition.
Other things I found interesting:
Not to pick on Sumlin anymore than I already have, but none of his 5 wins from Tier 2 came in the 2nd half of the season. Big surprise there.
Look at Bellard still leading in Win Percentage. Good for him.
Tier 3 & Tier 4
Losing Tier 2 games get people talking, but these are the games that stir up the mobs. Jimbo has remained perfect in these games so far, which only Kevin Sumlin managed to do in that same time span (Sumlin didn’t start losing Tier 3 matchups until 2016).
Other things I found interesting:
I know Jimbo has had a reputation so far of not blowing out bad teams, but he and RC have the highest average margin of victory against Tier 3 opponents at nearly 16 points.
Look at the jump in Average Opponent Points from Slocum to Fran in Tier 3, and see how that carries through the next two coaches until Elko rolled into town with Jimbo. I imagine that’s a combination of the spread offense explosion (particularly in the Big 12 days) and some pretty bad DC hires over the last 15 years.
Of the two, Sherman’s Tier 4 loss maybe more forgivable, since it came in his first game as a head coach and it wasn’t to freakin’ Baylor like Fran’s was.
Finally, to give you an idea of the level of competition each coach has faced, here’s the average number of games played.
Again, the immediate takeaway is that in his short career here, Jimbo has played a ton of Tier 1 football teams and then a fairly mediocre schedule past that. Things will balance out, more regular 12 game seasons and schedules that don’t include Clemson and Georgia will make sure of that. There’s some comfort in knowing that everything Jimbo has accomplished thus far has been done against one of the harder schedules you’ll ever find.
So now we have a pretty good understanding of what A&M Football has looked like since the early 70s and what Jimbo has done in comparison, at least by the SP+ standards. In three seasons Fisher has beaten everyone he’s “supposed” to but hasn’t brought home as many big name wins as you would hope. I don’t mean for this to be discouraging though, in fact I see a lot of positives to take away.
For one, it’s pretty obvious that Jimbo is building a team capable of taking down Top 10 SP+ teams a little more consistently. For proof, check out the average recruiting rankings of the last few coaches at A&M. Even being weighed down a bit by that 2018 transition class (which ranked 17th, becoming more and more of an outlier every year) this staff is stacking talent in a way not even Sumlin was able to do following the 2012 season.
For another thing, future schedules currently look much more favorable for the Aggies. Let’s look at the 2021 Schedule with the same tiered approach, using Bill Connelly’s 2021 SP+ Preseason Projections.
Currently it shakes out with only one Top 10 Team (the ever-looming dark shadow that rises out of Tuscaloosa on a yearly basis), one Tier 2 team riding the Lane Train, six in Tier 3, and the other three teams falling into Tier 4. Ole Miss could be really good by the end of the season, with a coach in his 2nd year and returning the 22nd most production in the country. Arkansas, Colorado, and Mississippi State could also finish way higher based off 2nd years with new coaches and being in the Top 40 in Returning Production, and LSU and Auburn always at least have the talent available to make big strides.
Uncertainty aside, this schedule sets up much more like 2020’s did than anything like 2018 or 2019. Most of these opponents are likely to finish between 26-75, and while nobody reloads quite like Bama, you have to like the idea of getting them at home after they lose 67% of their offensive production.
Of course, the Aggies have plenty of rebuilding to do on their own offensively, but that’s what the offseason is all about. Hope springs eternal.
What do you think? Excited for the future after seeing it all laid out? Hated reliving past disappoints? Think the SP+ is more meaningless than spring practice reports or the Longhorn’s New Coach Graphics? Let’s hear about it in the comments.