The 16th-ranked Texas A&M football team is playing Lamar on Saturday, but the subliminal focus will be on next week’s matchup with No. 8 Auburn, which has become the season’s biggest game. If the Aggies can’t beat the Tigers next week, it’s going to be a long season.

For months we’ve dissected one of A&M’s toughest schedules in school history. Instead of exhausting all possibilities, everybody mainly focused on the big positive that this is a season of opportunity. Maybe the Aggies don’t make the College Football Playoffs, but a good showing in 2019 will set them up for 2020 when they’ll be loaded with seniors and facing a much easier schedule. The future might not be now, but it’s near.

So this season appeared to be a win-win situation until A&M lost a game. Unfortunately for A&M, that loss came in the first real test of the season as the Aggies fell 24-10 at top-ranked Clemson.

It was by no means a bad loss. A&M was a 17.5-point underdog, playing the defending national champions on the road with only two seniors in the starting lineup. Despite those odds, the Aggies became the first team in 12 games to stay within 20 points of the Tigers, holding them to their fewest points since a 2017 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoffs.

But the bottom line for many is the game wasn’t really close. Clemson led by two scores for 30 minutes, 33 seconds and maintained control throughout an anticlimactic second half. A year ago, Clemson led by two scores for only 6:07 as A&M got to within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime with 46 seconds left. The first big game under new head coach Jimbo Fisher left a lasting impression on Aggie fans as most left Kyle Field or turned off their TV sharing a similar feeling: It ain’t like it used to be.

Fisher built on that performance for a 9-4 season that included a 74-72 seven overtime victory over LSU, the first over the Tigers since A&M joined the Southeastern Conference. The win over LSU also was part of four-game winning streak to end the season that made for an exciting offseason. A&M embraced the challenge of playing teams that held the top three spots in both major preseason polls — Clemson, Alabama and Georgia. That’s happened only three other times in the history of college football. Things got better as A&M opened the preseason rankings at No. 12 in the Associated Press poll and No. 11 by the coaches.

But what once looked like opportunity has grown outright oppressive.

LSU, which will host the Aggies in the regular-season finale, climbed to fourth in this week’s AP poll following a 45-38 victory at Texas. And A&M’s schedule officially became the toughest in school history with Auburn becoming the fifth opponent in the Top 10.

The Tigers climbed eight spots to No. 8 on the strength of a season-opening victory over Oregon. Forget that Oregon basically gave away the game. Forget the Tigers were a disappointing 8-5 last season and that most aren’t even sure they’re a Top 25 team, much less a Top 10 squad. The Tigers will roll into Kyle Field next week with a ton of confidence, playing at a venue in which they’ve never lost. Auburn beat Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in 2013, had a dominating 26-10 victory in ’15 as a touchdown underdog and cruised to a 42-27 victory two years ago.

Here still exists opportunity, because Auburn’s early success can work for the Aggies. If they can win next week then beat Arkansas, that would give them confidence heading into Alabama, which might be the team A&M has the best chance of beating among the big four of Clemson, Alabama Georgia and LSU.

But if the Aggies can’t beat Auburn, it would be hard to believe that they’ll beat one of the remaining big four. Obviously, they could, but they sure don’t want to put themselves in that position.

For now the focus is having a clean, dominating performance against Lamar.

You expect A&M to regain its swagger heading into the Auburn game, considering the Aggies are at home and they’ll want to atone for squandering a two-touchdown lead last year at Auburn. But what about baggage from the loss to Clemson?

Quarterback Kellen Mond didn’t play well early and had a pair of turnovers. The receivers had seven drops, and the team had nine penalties and couldn’t run the ball. That’s either a lack of focus or trying too hard, neither characteristics of a Fisher-coached team.

Fisher had no problem moving on from the loss, praising the players’ effort, saying last week’s loss was part of the growing process for a young team and that it has to get better in the key moments on the big stage. He said it also was progress the fans expected more from the Clemson game. The players at Monday’s press conference, including Mond, said the right things, but will they do them against Auburn?

That’s the challenge Fisher faces as he tries to change the culture. A&M fans have been here before. They’ve experienced a deflating loss after a big buildup. They’ve also seen big victories, winning streaks and even an 11-win season, but no cigars since 1998. It sure seems A&M is on the right path, but it ain’t there yet.

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