After a turnaround season in Year 1 under head coach Jimbo Fisher, the slogan for the Texas A&M fan base in 2019 very easily could be "I believe." Fisher has revitalized the Aggies program after finishing 9-4 (5-3 in the SEC) in his debut season. But perhaps the thing that thrills the 12th Man in College Station the most, and also gives credence to the new motto, Texas A&M avoided the November slide that had become a hallmark under former head coach Kevin Sumlin during his tenure. Fisher led the Aggies to a 3-1 mark to end the regular season and then put an exclamation point on the campaign with a 52-13 thumping of NC State in the Gator Bowl.
But with the challenge of navigating the typical SEC West schedule that adds Georgia and also has Texas A&M facing the defending national champion on the road, can the Aggies take the next step towards being a contender for a division title?
The offense was prolific overall in 2018, buoyed by a stronger run game. The Aggies finished among the top 20 nationally in both yards (472) and points (36) per game. Even more encouraging is the strides the defense made under coordinator Mike Elko, improving from No. 78 to No. 32 in total defense. With key players back on both sides of the ball, Fisher could push A&M to the double-digit win plateau for the first time since the 2012 season and for just the second time in 21 years. But how does the schedule line up to help ensure the Aggies success?
Byes: Week 6, Week 11
Week 1 — Aug. 31 vs. Texas State (College Station, Texas)
College football fans looking only at the Texas State versus Texas A&M matchup on paper are missing out on a lot of the intrigue. As the concentric circles of college football bring back what was old to something new, Aggie fans will welcome former offensive coordinator Jake Spavital back to College Station. From 2013-15 Spavital was the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for A&M helping Johnny Manziel win a Heisman Trophy.
For the Bobcats to makes some noise, Spavital has a lot of work to do. Texas State finished the 2018 campaign 3-9, 1-7 in the Sun Belt. The team was scrappy with a defense holding the final score close, but got taken to the woodshed in the season opener against Rutgers, falling 35-7.
Week 2 — Sept. 7 at Clemson (Clemson, S.C.)
The Aggies had two very close games that could have easily been victories had the ball bounced a different way here and there, and the 2018 showdown against Clemson was one of them. An unranked A&M squad surprised the nation by mounting a 23-point, second-half comeback only to fall short 28-26 against the No. 2 team in the country. Kellen Mond had the game of his life in front of the home fans, completing 23 of 40 passes for 430 yards with three touchdowns against the eventual national champions.
Clemson must hit the field in midseason form following an ACC season opener at home against Georgia Tech with a road trip to Syracuse looming. The Tigers can ill afford to take A&M for granted in 2019.
Week 3 — Sept. 14 vs. Lamar (College Station, Texas)
College football purists will hate on the Aggies for scheduling FCS member Lamar, but outside of the Week 6 bye, this is the only easy week on the schedule in 2019. The Cardinals should give A&M a chance to recoup from the physical throwdown against Clemson while giving time to the guys on the depth chart to gain some much-needed experience.
Lamar finished the 2018 season 7-5, 6-3 in Southland action, playing tough against ranked FCS teams. The Cardinals hit their stride midseason with wins over ranked Sam Houston State (No. 14), Central Arkansas (19), and McNeese State (22). Their Power 5 Conference money game against Texas Tech was a disaster losing 77-0.
Week 4 — Sept. 21 vs. Auburn (College Station, Texas)
This is the other game from 2018 A&M wishes it could have back. At the end of a grueling three-game road trip that included South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn, A&M let a 10-point, third-quarter lead slip away in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers went on to win 28-14 even though the Aggies outgained them by more than 100 yards (423-278), The problem for A&M was three costly turnovers.
This is where the proverbial "hot seat" talk could finally burn Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. In what seems to be a make-or-break year, Auburn starts off with Oregon in Arlington then gets a couple of gimmie games in Tulane and Kent State before heading back to Texas. The Tigers return home for Mississippi State only to go back on the road for their own ridiculous three-game road trip at Florida, Arkansas, and LSU.
Week 5 — Sept. 29 vs. Arkansas (Arlington, Texas)
The Southwest Classic is one of the best sleeper rivalries in college football. Sans a 21-point win by A&M in 2016, four of the last five meetings have been decided by a touchdown. Granted the Aggies have won seven in a row against the Razorbacks but the games are still packed with excitement.
Arkansas met up with A&M in 2018 after the Aggies had traveled to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on the No. 1 team in the country. Auburn may not wear down the Aggies enough for this one to be as close, but history says otherwise.
Week 7 — Oct. 12 vs. Alabama (College Station, Texas)
Each year, SEC teams keep loading up their bye week ahead of facing Alabama, but it does not seem to work in the form of a victory. But this could be the year when the strategy pays dividends. The Crimson Tide return plenty of talent but just two starters are back up front along the offensive line. And while the defense was good in 2018 (No. 16 overall), it did not play up to Alabama standards under Nick Saban. The back seven should be solid in 2019 but the defensive line will be very green.
Depending on what happens against South Carolina in Week 3, this could be a big opportunity for Fisher and the guys to expose an Alabama team that might not be as strong top to bottom as we've seen since 2011. Fingers crossed as A&M looks to break a six-game losing streak to the Tide.
Week 8 — Oct. 19 at Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss.)
The 2018 season was unkind to Rebels head coach Matt Luke and his guys on the gridiron. The Rebels went 5-7 (1-7 SEC) with lopsided losses to the top teams in the conference. Ole Miss is in the midst of a rebuilding project and will have a new look on offense under former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez and on defense under former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre. An influx of new talent also is coming in the 2019 recruiting class. All eyes will be on five-star running back Jerrion Ealy to see what kind of immediate impact he will have.
This is another series that has traditionally been a tight game. Ole Miss faces Cal, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Missouri before hosting the Aggies. This could be a trap game for the Rebels looking forward to their bye the following week.
Week 9 — Oct. 26 vs. Mississippi State (College Station, Texas)
Mississippi State's visit to Kyle Field at the end of October kicks off a three-game homestand for the Aggies. The Bulldogs will be a team in transition coming off of Joe Moorhead's first season in Starkville. Mississippi State ended the 2018 campaign ranked 25th in the Coaches Poll after going 8-5 (4-4 SEC).
The Bulldogs had the nation's No. 1 defense but must move on without All-SEC linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. The offense had its issues, something that was unexpected given Moorhead's background and resume. That side of the ball will have a new starting quarterback among the changes. Mississippi State will come into this game having played Kentucky, Auburn, Tennessee, and LSU.
Week 10 — Nov. 2 vs. UTSA (College Station, Texas)
Life in Conference USA has not been great for UTSA, especially over the past five seasons with 22 total wins during that span. Last season, the Roadrunners managed just three victories, opening things with consecutive losses to Arizona State (49-7), Baylor (37-20), and Kansas State (41-17). Head coach Frank Wilson hired Jeff Kastl as the new offensive coordinator, what can he bring to the field?
This will be just the second meeting between the two Lone Star State teams with A&M winning 23-13 in 2016.
Week 12 — Nov. 16 vs. South Carolina (College Station, Texas)
The 26-23 win on the road against the Gamecocks was a big one for A&M last season. It signified a team that can travel tough and win games it is supposed to outside the friendly confines of Texas. The showdown was a slugfest lasting into the final minute of regulation. Expect the Gamecocks to hit the field with the intent of seeking some payback.
While A&M gets a breather against UTSA, South Carolina should be doing much of the same against Appalachian State. If both teams are healthy, this could be another last-minute thriller.
Week 13 — Nov. 23 at Georgia (Athens, Ga.)
Georgia (11-3, 7-1 SEC) finished the 2018 regular season as one of the best in the nation and then proceeded to lose its last two. After coming up short against Alabama (35-28) in the SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs fell to Texas (28-21) in the Sugar Bowl. With a chip on its shoulder and a nice mix of talent returning, Georgia could once again be in position to make a run for the SEC title with a possible return to the College Football Playoff. Seeing Missouri and Auburn ahead of the Aggies, Georgia will be ready.
The cocky A&M fan will be happy to see Kentucky roll off the revolving SEC West vs. East schedule for Georgia (who doesn’t want to play and beat the best of the best?), but for Fisher and staff, this showdown presents a very difficult late-season challenge. This also will be the first time these two teams meet as conference foes. A&M leads the all-time series 3-2 with the last meeting coming in the 2009 Independence Bowl, a 44-20 win for the Bulldogs.
Week 14 — Nov. 30 at LSU (Baton Rouge, La.)
A&M's 74-72 win over LSU in seven overtimes last season was one for the ages. In the end, the Aggies won thanks to a two-point conversion as both teams basically traded punches throughout the extra periods. The victory spoke volumes about how far A&M had come under Fisher in just one season while breaking a seven-game losing streak to the Tigers. LSU lost key players on both sides of the ball to the NFL but returns a loaded roster in 2019.
Crunching the schedule, A&M has four very challenging games — Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. A split of the four, especially if those come in SEC play, could have the Aggies in contention for a spot in the SEC Championship Game, which would in all likelihood make them a dark-horse contender for a playoff berth. Can Fisher do for A&M what he did at Florida State in 2013 when he led the Seminoles to a national title?
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.