Texas A&M vs. Kentucky

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher speaks with quarterback Kellen Mond (11) before the start of Saturday’s game against Kentucky at Kyle Field.

Jimbo Fisher needs an encore. His first season at Texas A&M was a smashing success on and off the field. The seven-overtime victory over LSU, which validated a 9-4 season, happened more than seven months ago. But Aggies daily recall game details as if it happened last week.

More good news came Fisher’s way less than a month after that 74-72 victory when A&M signed a Top 5 recruiting class, and it currently is compiling another class that’s ranked in the Top 10 and probably will finish in the Top 5.

Recruits believe Fisher is building the nation’s next Clemson. A&M’s facilities, education and support are second to none, and Fisher is the perfect face of the program. He walks, talks, thinks and sleeps championships, and he’s such a great ambassador for what A&M has to offer it’s hard to believe he’s been in Aggieland only 20 months.

The last time A&M football had this kind of national appeal was when Johnny Manziel lifted the Heisman Trophy, then four weeks later ran roughshod over the Oklahoma Sooners as the Aggies capped a magical 11-2 season. Aggies expected that 2012 season to be the foundation for greater success, but it faded fast as A&M mastered turning impressive starts into season-ending disappointments, making inexcusable gaffes along the way.

The Aggies managed to have quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray leave the program before the 2015 Music City Bowl. And after three seasons of great starts and reeling finishes, A&M condensed its start-stop problem into one game, blowing a 34-point lead against UCLA in the 2017 opener.

Suffice it to say those things will never happen under Fisher, but will he duplicate or even top the six double-digit win seasons he had in a seven-year stretch at Florida State, which included three Atlantic Coast Conference championships and a national championship?

It seems more a matter of when than if.

Many expect A&M to be a Top 5 team in 2020, possibly playing for the national championship. The Aggies will be armed with as many as 20 returning starters, several of them three-year starters. The schedule also will be their easiest since joining the SEC. It’ll be an advantage playing Colorado and Vanderbilt instead of Clemson and Georgia, though trips to South Carolina, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama won’t be easy. There’s little margin for error in making the College Football Playoff, which has never had a two-loss team in its five years.

That’s why A&M’s chances of making the CFP this season are slim, though the opportunity exists because of one of the country’s toughest schedules. If the Aggies go 11-1, they’d be a lock for the CFP because they play Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and LSU. Most, though, consider A&M only a possible spoiler this season, not a potential contender. It’s a notion Fisher scoffs at.

“We expect to play with them and compete with them and win those games,” Fisher said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Make no mistake about it, Fisher is building for 2020 and beyond every day, especially in recruiting. But on the field his focus is now. We saw a glimpse of that last season. His first Aggie team had national championship moments, none bigger than the LSU game. Almost upsetting Clemson, beating Kentucky in overtime and pummeling North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl to end the season with a four-game winning streak were huge steps forward. They overshadowed losses to Mississippi State and Auburn, games in which A&M had halftime leads. Those losses didn’t define the Aggies as A&M grew up during tough times, a complete reversal of what had been happening.

Fisher’s challenge is to build on that despite playing the program’s toughest schedule in two decades. A&M could match last season’s 9-4 record and be ranked in the Top 15, giving Fisher a second solid season. But going 0 for 4 against the marquee opponents would be somewhat of a downer, because those are the games that win championships, which is what Fisher was hired to do.

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