COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One glance at Texas A&M's 2019 slate might make one wonder what the Aggies ever did to upset the schedule-makers.
Clemson. Alabama. LSU. Georgia.
Four of the top seven teams in the country (according to the final 2018 AP poll), including the two teams that played for the national championship. Jimbo Fisher knew what he was getting into when he took over a team in the SEC West prior to last season (and he was rudely welcomed by having to play Clemson and Alabama in the first month of the 2018 season).
"It gives you motivation," Fisher told ESPN.com. "You better get on it, quick."
The second-year Aggies coach welcomes the challenge, and it's why he harps on his team daily about everything from its work ethic to its mental state.
Fans in Aggieland feel good about the Maroon and White these days, with the team coming off a 9-4 season and its best end-of-season stretch since 2012. It won three of four games in November -- a month that has cursed the Aggies in the recent past -- and closed out the year with a resounding 52-13 beatdown of NC State in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl. The four-game winning streak to end the season also included the team's first win over LSU since joining the SEC.
The good news for A&M? Of the 22 players who started in the Gator Bowl, 13 of them are back, including seven on offense. The 2019 Aggies could -- and should -- be better than their 2018 counterparts. It's the second year under Fisher, and the players have a better grasp of how the program is run and what's expected of them. The coordinators on each side are the same, as Darrell Dickey and Mike Elko are back on offense and defense, respectively. And one of those returning starters is at the game's most important position: quarterback, where Kellen Mond grew by leaps and bounds last season.
It's entirely possible, though, that the Aggies are a better team in 2019 and it will not be reflected in their record. With three of those aforementioned four games on the road, it will be a challenge to surpass last season's nine wins.
"We'll have to wait and see," Fisher said. "I mean, yeah, you're going to play great competition. But at the same time, there's no reason we can't have success."
Regardless of the Aggies' win total this season, it might actually be 2020 when they can really make their mark. All those returning starters have at least two years of eligibility remaining. That includes three of five starting offensive linemen and all of Mond's starting receivers (Quartney Davis, Jhamon Ausbon and Kendrick Rogers). More than half of the 47 players on the end-of-season two-deep also fit into that category.
Add in a recruiting class that ranked third nationally in 2019 and a 2020 class that's off to a solid start with three ESPN Junior 300 prospects, and the Aggies could have a roster with plenty of quality experience mixed in with a lot of high-end young talent. Couple that with a schedule that becomes less harsh in 2020 (swap Clemson for Colorado in nonconference and Georgia for Vanderbilt in conference play), and it could be a formula for a pretty strong year.
That's all in the future, though, and Fisher has an eye on it even as he's focused on the here and now.
"We're still in the process of building it," Fisher said. "We're instilling a culture and how we do things. ... I think we're trying to develop that culture still to this day. I think you always do the first couple years until you get it established and they have enough success to believe in everything."
After a positive Year 1, this offseason has been about Fisher seeing who's willing to go a step further.
"It does [give me optimism] if you take the right approach, if you don't get bored," Fisher said. "We had a solid season. OK. But now, are you willing to pay that price to go to the next level?
"And it's not just physical. It's the mental and psychological disposition. Winning and being dominant, to me, is a learned behavior that you have to push yourself to do all the time because it's too challenging. We have to keep establishing that."
So far, the players have received that message. Mond said of his goals this spring: "Not to be satisfied."
"Continue to grow," he said. "Understand what type of team we can be. We have a lot of guys coming back. Some key guys left, but we still understand what type of team we can be. We have a hell of a schedule, but we're up for it."
Fisher is happy to use the schedule to push and challenge his players as they move forward. But he's also not losing sight of the big picture.
"It's a great teaching mechanism," Fisher said. "We've got to keep laying the foundation for things. We can have tremendous success and have a tremendous team, but we still have to make sure we're laying the foundation for the future of what we're trying to do."