EDIT: This article was first posted in June 2021, but is being re-posted due to the recent announcement that a 12-team format has been approved by the College Football Playoff Board of Managers.
The college football world was rocked last week by the news that the College Football Playoff management committee was recommending expansion to a 12-team playoff. The reactions were rampant, ranging from fervent support to abject hatred. But no matter where you stand on the merits of expanding the Playoff, it’s undeniable that it opens to door for more teams to compete for a national title, and perhaps no team in the country is better positioned to take advantage of this proposed system than Texas A&M.
The Aggies have long been labeled a “sleeping giant” in college football: a large state university with a rabid fanbase, flush with cash and situated in a recruiting hotbed. But even with those advantages, A&M has still struggled to find meaningful success at the national level, with no national titles since before World War II, no conference championships this millennium, and only four Top 5 finishes in program history. This can be attributed to several different factors, but in recent years and decades, we’ve seen virtually all of these barriers stripped away one at a time, presenting A&M with a golden opportunity to cement itself as a member of college football’s elite for the foreseeable future.
But before we lay out what A&M’s future looks like, let’s examine factors that limited the program’s growth in the past (and what has been done to overcome them)
An all male, all ROTC college
It’s been almost 60 years since A&M allowed female students and made membership in the Corps of Cadets optional, but it’s undeniable that those factors hindered the football program’s growth for decades while the University of Texas program thrived under Darrell Royal. Imagine trying to recruit against Texas if choosing A&M meant you’d be attending an all-male school with mandatory ROTC participation.
This was obviously rectified by University President Earl Rudder in the mid-1960s, but the fact that the Aggies sputtered to a 31-64-6 record with only one conference title in the 1960s while the rival Longhorns 86-19-5 with five conference titles and two national titles cemented a program hierarchy that has lasted for generations.
Lack of facilities
Facilities seems to be an arms race with no end in sight, but A&M’s hesitancy to jump into this arms race early on once again held them back from taking the next step as a program. Despite the Aggies’ success in the early ‘90s, their facilities had remained essentially unchanged for over a decade, all the while Texas was making major investments in locker rooms and training and practice facilities. It once again created a significant recruiting advantage that even a super on-field product in the ‘90s could not overcome.
A&M eventually got with the program, building (and later expanding) the Bright Football Complex, building a new weight room, an indoor practice facility, and completely overhauling Kyle Field. Today, our facilities are among the best in the country, but it will take continued investment in them to keep it that way.
A differentiating factor
Even with facilities investments, A&M was often still seen as the “little brother” of the University of Texas, especially in the eyes of high school football recruits. A&M was very similar to Texas, and offered many of the same benefits, but ultimately, just wasn’t quite as good. There was no recruit pitch that A&M could use that Texas could not match or exceed. That all changed with the move to the SEC. The SEC is without question the premiere conference in college football, drawing more elite recruits, winning more national titles and producing more NFL draft picks than any other conference by a wide margin. So if Texas players wanted to go to a school close to home but also player against the best of the best, A&M was the place to go.
Getting the right coach
Just like any program, having all of the other pieces in place does nothing if you don’t have the right man leading the program. Kevin Sumlin had a Heisman winner, and A&M had more buzz a program than ever before in his early years. But that buzz never quite materialized into significant on-field success, and that eventually cost him his job.
A&M was given a lot of grief for handing Jimbo Fisher $75 million to take the reins in 2017, but three years in, A&M has had it’s three best recruiting classes in program history, and just had it’s most successful season in more than 50 years. The Aggies pushed all of their chips to the middle of the table with the Jimbo hire, but that big gamble appears to be paying off, as he’s assembled the most stacked A&M roster in recent memory.
Getting a foot in the door
With everything has played into A&M’s favor in recent decades, and even with 2020 playing out almost perfectly for them, they were still on the outside looking in on the national championship hunt. And with a powerhouse like Alabama in their own division (not even to mention LSU, Auburn and a host of other frequent contenders), getting over that hump to have consistent 0 or 1 loss seasons was going to be a major challenge. An expanded Playoff clears that hurdle.
Obviously the Playoff is going to be viewed as a benefit by virtually everybody outside of Alabamas, Clemsons and Ohio States of the world. But A&M almost certainly leads that pack. The Aggies are a team that has not consistently been among college football’s elite in decades (maybe ever), but they are also seemingly coming to a crescendo at an extremely opportune time. ESPN’s future power rankings put A&M No. 6 over the next three seasons, so it’s not unrealistic to expect them to be competing for a Playoff spot on an annual basis if and when the expanded Playoff becomes a reality.
The next five years of Aggie Football could be the most formative we’ve seen in generations. Succeed, and they could finally remove the “sleeping” from their title and simply be a college football giant. Fail, and it could be decades until opportunity presents itself like this again.