Before becoming the Texas A&M athletic director in July, Ross Bjork only knew Jimbo Fisher by reputation and by common relationships.
COLLEGE STATION —Before becoming the Texas A&M athletic director in July, Ross Bjork only knew Jimbo Fisher by reputation and by common relationships.
At a recent practice, Bjork got significant insight into what separates Fisher from most other college football coaches.
During one drill, A&M quarterbacks were throwing to the boundary. A former college player himself, Bjork thought he saw good passes. Not Fisher, who set a cone at 18 yards.
“He wanted the quarterbacks to throw over that cone at the 18-yard mark,” Bjork said. “He wasn’t going to stop running that drill until each quarterback hit the spot. ... That moment kind of stood out to me. Why is that cone at 18 when it could easily be at 20 yards or 15 yards? That attention to detail is what I’m seeing day in and day out.”
It’s exactly what A&M hoped to see when it hired Fisher and his national championship resume from Florida State in December 2017. While so much of Fisher’s first season was about the hype — from the 10-year, $75 million contract to the blank national championship plaque he was given — Year 2 is now about realistic expectations and having the foundation in place.
Coming off a 9-4 season and an epic seven-overtime win over budding rival LSU, the Aggies are ranked 11th in the Amway Coaches Poll, the highest they’ve been to open the season since 2013, Johnny Manziel’s sophomore season.
Some are even suggesting this could rival the 1998 season, when R.C. Slocum’s team finished 11-3 and beat Kansas State in the Big 12 title game.
Fan enthusiasm is high as reflected in season-ticket sales. A&M is on pace for what could be another top-10 recruiting class with three five-star recruits committed for 2020.
“When you look at all those different elements, there is a ton of momentum right now in our program because all the pieces are being put together,” Bjork said. “How many games are we going to win? Nobody can predict that. When you have those other things going in the right direction, the winning part will take care of itself.”
Asked of the biggest difference year over year, Fisher focused off the field and between the ears with his players.
“I think it’s their psychological disposition to understanding what it takes to play at the highest level and we’re still getting there,” Fisher said. “But understanding the true commitment of we’re not trying to play well, we’re trying to be successful and win and what that entails. You think they should know. No, they don’t know.”
A&M is still in the process of working its way up the levels required to be elite, he said.
“I think we’re much closer from the psychological disposition of understanding that,” Fisher said. “Once you understand that, everything else falls into place. It really does.”
Junior quarterback Kellen Mond was sitting in the back of the meeting room at Kyle Field when Fisher talked about the mental change. He didn’t disagree.
“Not everybody really had confidence in themselves last year,” Mond said. “We kind of see a culture change going on right now. Our growth and everybody else’s growth on both sides of the ball, I feel like it is really special. We’re all buying into a common goal.”
Mond is a big part of that growth.
A year ago, Mond was competing with Nick Starkel for the starting spot. Now, he’s coming off a season where he threw for 3,107 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Even though A&M has just six seniors on the roster and plenty of holes to fill — record-setting running back Trayveon Williams and all but one of the front seven on defense — there’s also plenty of talent.
“Stay tuned,” defensive tackle Bobby Brown III said.
Tempering the enthusiasm is a murder’s row of a schedule that includes No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia and No. 6 LSU. All but Alabama are on the road.
It’s possible that A&M could be a significantly better football team and not have that improvement reflected in the record.
ESPN analyst Greg McElroy suggested last month that Texas will have a better season than A&M simply because of the schedule.
“A&M is coming,” McElroy said during a broadcast. “There’s no denying what Jimbo has done on the recruiting trail, with the foundations and principles that he’s trying to instill in that program, it’s only a matter of time until they get up there with the Clemsons of the world, the Georgias, the Alabamas, you name it.
“They’re coming. They’re just not there yet.”
A conventional wisdom is building that A&M’s breakthrough season may come in 2020. Colorado replaces Clemson on the nonconference schedule and Vanderbilt steps in for Georgia as the SEC cross-division foe.
Just don’t tell A&M.
At SEC media days, Fisher took exception to the idea of A&M playing a spoiler this season.
“Everyone is saying we got to play them,” Mond said. “Well they’ve got to play us too.”
The timetable for SEC and playoff contention could be accelerated if the Aggies are able to handle the challenge.
“It’s a mindset more than anything,” Bjork said. “Your players and coaches have to embrace the opportunity because everybody looks at that like you’re going to lose those games.
“But what happens when you win those games? Then what? Then you’re in the playoffs? Then you’re in the playoff conversations?”