"Who is Alabama's biggest threat in the SEC West?"
This question has been asked on almost an annual basis, and the cast of characters has changed throughout coach Nick Saban's run at Alabama. This year, it's likely that Texas A&M will get that designation when assembled members of the media predict the outcome of the conference at SEC Media Days in Atlanta next month.
No, it's not because Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher had an offseason war of words with Saban. The hype for the boys from College Station, Texas, came long before that glorious week of "talkin' season" drama. It started when Fisher signed a stunning 10-year, $75 million contract to take over the program after a successful stint at Florida State. And it started because that contract came with a national title plaque with a blank spot waiting for a championship year to be etched in when (not if) the Aggies won the national title. It's because Fisher's Aggies topped Alabama in College Station last year despite having a backup quarterback going up against the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. It's because Fisher just reeled in the best recruiting class of all time according to the 247Sports Composite.
Simply put ... it's time for Fisher to "put up or shut up."
How can he make a statement in 2022?
Develop a consistent difference-maker at QB
Zach Calzada moved three states east to Auburn after leading that victory over Alabama last year, which left a void under center for the Aggies. Haynes King, who initially won the starting job last fall prior to suffering a season ending injury in Week 2, stuck around to try to win the gig for the second straight season. He was joined this offseason by ex-LSU signal-caller Max Johnson and hotshot recruit Conner Weigman.
Fisher needs to find a difference-maker out of the trio, not just a game-manager. Calzada was the latter last year in virtually every game other than the win over the Tide, which played a big part in the Aggies' 8-4 record and .500 conference mark. The same issue plagued the first three years of Fisher's tenure in College Station when Kellen Mond couldn't consistently show the upside that made him a sought-after high school prospect.
Fisher's system puts more responsibility on its quarterback than most others in college football, and it's imperative that he not only picks one shortly after the start of fall camp, but the eventual winner to play at a level that puts him at least on the fringe of the Heisman Trophy conversation. That will prevent the yo-yo effect that has prevented the program from posing a legitimate threat in the division.
Defense doesn't win championships anymore. Sure, Georgia had a great one last year. But it got more than enough offense in the passing game when it needed to tap into that faucet. Four years in, and Fisher is still searching for that on a consistent basis.
Find the right rotation up front
The Aggies lost essentially all four starters from last year's defensive line and defensive coordinator Mike Elko, which leaves a massive void in what is one of the most critical areas for championship teams. That's the bad news. The good news is that the new-look unit looks to be much more versatile and has more upside than its predecessor.
McKinnley Jackson and Tunmise Adeleye have the size to be monsters on the interior of the line, and incoming freshman Walter Nolen (No. 2 overall) should see immediate time in the rotation. Fadil Diggs should be first in line on the edge, but could move around if true freshman Shemar Stewart comes in and shows that he deserves playing time. Fellow freshmen Lebbeus Overton and Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy should enter the rotation early in their careers.
Do you sense a theme here? Youth, youth and more youth. That's great for Fisher and certainly bodes well for the future, but he will likely have to rely on multiple youngsters to play key roles in a positional unit that is at its best when full-grown adults who can legally drink take the majority of the snaps. The defensive line was the centerpiece of the stellar recruiting class, but some of those stars are going to have to grow up in a hurry in order for the Aggies to live up to their contender moniker.
Get creative with Swiss Army knife athletes
There's a little bit of a quarterback conundrum in College Station, as mentioned above. One way for Fisher to aid the progression under center is to get his ultra-athletic weapons involved in a variety of ways.
Specifically, Devon Achane and Ainias Smith need to be as "positionless" as possible. Sure, Achane will likely sit atop the depth chart at running back and Smith will occupy the same space at one of the wide receiver spots. But moving them around in a variety of ways will make it nearly impossible for opposing defensive coordinators to identify tendencies and figure out ways to shut them down.
If that happens, outside receivers will likely get more one-on-one matchups deep downfield which will help whoever starts at quarterback to emerge as the difference-maker. It will also open up some space for incoming freshman stars Evan Stewart and Chris Marshall to get more run with the first team.