Jimbo Fisher: Grading the First Four Years

A year after many FSU fans questioned whether he was the right man for the job, Jimbo Fisher has silenced the critics and stands poised to join the discussion of the best coaches in the land.

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Florida State fans (and many national pundits) had spent the bulk of the offseason portraying Seminole head coach Jimbo Fisher as an underachiever whose teams lost to underdogs at an unusual and unacceptable rate. The other popular discussion (aside from conference realignment) was the near-constant refrain that Fisher should give up his offensive coordinator duties for more of a CEO role.

In last year’s three-year progress report, we compared Fisher’s progress to Nick Saban’s rebuilding project at LSU, noting striking similarities to the trajectory of the two programs and arguing that it was too early to place the underachiever tag on Fisher, whose team looked primed for a great run in 2013 and beyond, concluding:

…the reality is that the Florida State program has taken a step forward every year since Fisher took over after a long decline, taking the Seminoles from 42nd in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings in 2009 to 18th in 2010, 10th in 2011 (despite the injuries), and fifth in 2012. Should that trend continue, Fisher may well wind up repeating the pattern of his mentor.

I am not suggesting that Fisher has reached Saban status at this point. But I do think it's clear that the underachiever tag is undeserved and premature, that the program is on the right track, and that the 2013 season is setting up to be a very exciting one for Seminole fans.

One year later, things look dramatically different. Fisher’s Seminoles indeed followed the same trajectory as Saban’s LSU program, winning a national championship in the coach’s fourth year. But Fisher’s FSU was actually more dominant than his mentor’s first title team, as FSU tore through the 2013 regular season in historically dominant fashion before capping an unbeaten season with a comeback victory over the SEC champion Auburn Tigers.

All criticisms of Fisher as a coach who “takes his foot off the gas,” can’t motivate his teams against overmatched foes, and runs an offense too complicated for the college game have since been put on hold as Florida State enters the 2014 season as an odds-on favorite to reach the first ever college football playoff.

And it is worth revisiting that comparison to Saban’s time at LSU once again:

LSU (Saban)

FSU (Fisher)

Previous 4 years

26–20 (15–17)

31–21 (13–11)

Year 1

8–4 (5–3)

10–4 (6–2)

Year 2

10–3 (5–3)

9–4 (5–3)

Year 3


12–2 (7–1) ACC

Year 4

13–1 (7–1) NC

14–0 (8–0) NC

Year 5

9–3 (6–2)


Obviously anything resembling Saban’s fifth year would be a colossal disappointment for this FSU team, which has the personnel and experience to be better than 2013, though injuries and luck will also have their say on whether the season winds up as successful.

After three years, the point of the comparison was to observe the steps a rebuilding program must go through and highlight the way Fisher’s FSU largely mirrored his mentor’s. But after four years and a first national championship it’s worth posing another question: Where should Fisher fall in a discussion of the top coaches in the college game? Should we already be mentioning him in the same breath as Saban, who is widely held to be the top coach in the game?

At this point, I am reminded (and longtime NoleDigest subscribers may recall earlier reports of this) of what a coach who had been on staff with Saban and Fisher at LSU told me when Fisher first arrived as the offensive coordinator at FSU: “He’s like the offensive Saban.” In many respects, the results are starting to validate that sentiment. And looking forward, given the direction of the college game, would you prefer the offensive or defensive Saban? As for me, I’ll always default to the elite quarterback coach, all other things being equal. And I suspect that after the next couple seasons, more people will mirror that sentiment.

After last season, there’s no doubt that Fisher has rebuilt FSU into a juggernaut that reloads rather than rebuilds and should be in the discussion for the playoff for the foreseeable future. In that respect, I would argue that the program is stronger today than it was at any point in the Dynasty years of the late 80s and 90s under the legendary Bobby Bowden. There’s no doubt at this point that Fisher is the right coach at the right time in Tallahassee.

Another title in 2014 would make for some very interesting discussions, as Fisher would have accomplished what Saban was unable to manage in five years at LSU—and matched Bowden’s two career titles. Even a playoff birth would put Fisher in very rare company in terms of his first five years.

Regardless of whether Fisher’s Seminoles are able to rise to the top two years in a row, the kinds of questions being asked in 2014 are starkly different from those of 2013, and Florida State is sure to reap the rewards of that stability for years to come. If Fisher’s grade through three years was an Incomplete, he’s now standing on a solid A. Pending the next exam, of course…

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