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Can Texas A&M finally make its move up the SEC food chain in 2022?

Will the Aggies finally ditch their “8-and-4″ reputation?

COLLEGE STATION — At times, Jimbo Fisher seems oblivious to or at least unconcerned about what is being said regarding the Texas A&M football program.

OK, there are exceptions, like when Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested the Aggies had “bought every player” in their No. 1-ranked recruiting class. The result was an angry exchange that competed with realignment; name, image and likeness; and commissioner trash talk for top offseason distractions.

Otherwise, Fisher tends to ignore the background noise. He’s not on Twitter, so he didn’t see fans celebrating Aug. 4 as Texas A&M Day because of the 8/4 connotation.

And when he was asked his thoughts about an anonymous quote in a preview magazine from a Southeastern Conference coach that A&M was an 8-4 program and that Fisher knew it, there was no verbal explosion.

“Why would I respond to somebody who’s anonymous?” Fisher said. “We’ll see.”

Credit Fisher for choosing his battles wisely. It’s one thing to take on Saban, another to duel unnamed sources or the Twitterverse.

The bigger question is whether Fisher and A&M will be mentioned in the same breath as Saban and Alabama at the end of the season.

Skeptics are easy to find. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum characterized Fisher as the “villain of college football” earlier this year. Finebaum himself is working on a book about the Saban-Fisher feud and received a hefty advance, according to Sports Business Journal.

The 8-4 criticism isn’t totally unfounded.

Outside of that 10-1 season during the COVID-shortened 2020 season (“I thought we were at that time as good as anybody in the country,” Fisher said), A&M has posted either eight or seven regular-season wins in Fisher’s first four seasons.

The trend goes back through most of the Kevin Sumlin era like clockwork. The last five times that A&M opened the season in the top 10 of The Associated Press Top 25, it failed to finish there, dating to 1995.

So it didn’t start with Fisher.

At the same time, he, players and Aggie fans want it to end with him.

“The goal for this team is to compete for the national championship,” offensive lineman Layden Robinson said. “Nothing has changed. We know our standard. Our standard is to be the best that we can be each and every day.

“We want to rise to the occasion, especially when the lights are the brightest. We just want to rise up this season.”

After the heralded 10-year, $75 million contract when Fisher was hired following the 2017 season, after another big-money contract extension and after the stockpiling of blue-chip talent, it might be time. And it’s a very good bet when the AP Top 25 is released Monday, that A&M will be in the top 10, just like it was in the USA Today coaches poll.

(Cue ominous music.)

If A&M is concerned about expectations, it has been anything but obvious early in preseason camp.

“Let’s just say all the keys are being put into motion that we need to be. Right now, the mind-set is totally different,” senior receiver/returner Ainias Smith said, not happy about how 2021 ended. “We came up short, lost some games that we feel like we shouldn’t have.

“We’re coming back for vengeance.”

Smith has made sure the message has become ingrained with the freshmen and other newcomers on the roster.

“I think about that all the time,” Smith said, “just looking back at the season, watching film, looking at our mistakes that we could have worked on or done better. Just bringing that to the attention of our guys, making sure they know what happened last season.”

For one, A&M got inconsistent quarterback play after the early injury to starter Haynes King in Week 2. Zach Calzada showed skill and grit against Alabama but struggled in losses to Arkansas, Mississippi and LSU. Running back Isaiah Spiller was hurt the second half of the season, and the defense — while impressive statistically — was prone to untimely breakdowns.

The struggles in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss and LSU left a mark.

“We let a few games get away from us,” defensive back Antonio Johnson said. “I don’t feel anyone in the locker room wants to go through that same season again. We’re keeping that in our conscience of how that season went. I feel like that’s our motivation.”

Despite all the incentive and ability, a run like 2020 will be a challenge in the hypercompetitive SEC West, where everything starts with Alabama.

For all the assembled talent in College Station, much of it is young and inexperienced. With that incredible freshman class, A&M might be the odds-on national title favorite in 2025.

Defensive lineman Walter Nolen was ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the country and fellow front mates Anthony Lucas, a spring game standout; Enai White; and Shemar Stewart aren’t far behind. Receiver Evan Stewart of Frisco Liberty has shown skill and the ability to stretch the field that A&M lacked last season. Conner Weigman is the quarterback of the future, if not the present. Oh, and A&M landed three of the top six tight ends in the country, according to 247Sports, led by Jake Johnson.

The trouble is that we’re in 2022. And plenty of experienced talent went out the door after last season.

“I like where we’re at right now,” Fisher said. “I like the mentality. I think we’ve been to the highs, been to some disappointment right there. But we have depth and talent.”

Most importantly, the Aggies cannot turn winnable games into woulda, coulda, shoulda exercises in second-guessing.

“Listen, you are what your habits say you are on a daily basis. When pressure comes, that’s what’s coming to the surface,” Fisher said. “I think that’s what we have to do, and we have to learn to finish at the end of games. That’s what got us last year.”

Twitter: @ChuckCarltonDMN

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