During Jimbo Fisher's first practice at Texas A&M, he made a proclamation about who was in charge and what he expected.
"It ain't how it used to be," Fisher barked. "It ain't gonna be how it used to be."
Late in his third season, Fisher's Aggies have already proved him prophetic in one regard: The second-half swoon that had been a nightmare for A&M fans has become a thing of the past.
Under Kevin Sumlin, A&M was ranked in The Associated Press top 10 nine times in the seventh game of the season or later. In the games following that ranking, the Aggies went 4-5, including losing five of their last six before he was fired after the 2017 season.
This year, after a 52-24 loss to Alabama, A&M beat then-No. 4 Florida and started a six-game winning streak. The porous defenses that led to defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory? That trend turned, too. The Aggies are allowing just 18.8 points per game over that stretch, second in the SEC to the Crimson Tide.
The result is that A&M is in unprecedented territory, sitting at No. 5 with one game to play in the regular season, on the cusp of a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The Aggies have done what they can to be in this position. There won't be a lot of lobbying from Fisher, at least until after a win can be secured at Tennessee on Saturday.
"If we're in position to be able to do that, we'll make our own comments," Fisher said Monday. "If we need an argument, we need an argument by how we play, not by what we say."
Still, the Aggies are in a prime position. Four of the previous six teams that were ranked fifth entering conference championship week went on to finish in the top four and make the playoff.
Despite all of these positive omens, Aggies fans have been known to feel uneasy, thanks to years of underwhelming finishes. But this team has eased many of those jittery nerves, thanks to a physical transformation.
"It's a new brand of football," said Stephen McGee, the former Texas A&M quarterback who is now an analyst for TexAgs.com. "You're starting to see a lot of the things that Jimbo is putting into place in this program -- the ability to run the football. You're starting to see these recruiting classes stack up. And you can start to see the big picture.
"Those are the types of things that have a lot of Aggie fans out there believing that this team is really different."
The biggest reason is the bodies on both lines. Fisher's recruiting prowess has paid off with stars such as Kenyon Green, an immediate starter who is an Outland Trophy semifinalist after being ESPN's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2018 recruiting class. DeMarvin Leal, the No. 8 defensive tackle in that class, has been a massive disruptive force on the D-line this season. For the first time since A&M joined the SEC in 2012, the Aggies rank in the top two in the league in both rushing yards per game and rushing yards allowed per game.
The result: While the Aggies aren't putting up flashy numbers, they're absolutely dominating up front, morphing into the type of old-school SEC team that the league was once known for.
Sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller is averaging 112.1 yards per game, and A&M leads the SEC in yards per rush (5.5) and time of possession. The Aggies also rank fourth in the country in fewest sacks per pass attempt, allowing just four sacks all season and putting together five straight games without giving up one. The ability to pound the ball and protect senior quarterback Kellen Mond has allowed Texas A&M to convert 55% of its third downs, third best nationally.
Coming into the season, the offensive line was considered a question mark. Instead, it has turned into the team's strength. All five of A&M's starters up front -- Carson Green, Kenyon Green, Jared Hocker, Ryan McCollum and Dan Moore Jr. -- have started all eight games. They've played together for 523 of the team's 547 offensive snaps. They didn't allow a sack from the second quarter of the season opener against Vanderbilt until the LSU game on Nov. 28, a span of 24 quarters -- or 201 pass attempts.
Kenyon Green said the trust the group has earned has allowed the linemen to keep doing what they love: pushing opponents around.
"[We're] imposing our will on each team we play," he said. "Making sure they feel those each play. Going out there and dominating; that's the main thing. Dominating and make sure Mond doesn't get touched. When we get rolling and we feel like we impose our will, we just ask [Fisher], can we keep running the ball? Just driving it down their throat."
The Aggies' 31-20 win at Auburn was the most recent example: 47 carries, 313 yards, an average of 6.7 yards per rush against a team that was allowing 162.4 rushing yards per game.
Mond said that besides Spiller, having the versatile Ainias Smith (223 rushing yards, 410 receiving yards) as well as the emergence of true freshman Devon Achane (224 yards in six games, with 99 yards coming against Auburn) allows the Aggies to play multiple combinations and call any play, no matter who's in the game.
"You see that in the Florida game and some of these other big games where we're down and we're not afraid to run the ball seven straight times in a drive," Mond said. "It's a mindset. It's not easy. It's definitely something that you have to work for and you have to train for."
That training is something A&M players have mentioned since Fisher's arrival, noting grueling summer workouts and intense practices. Fisher said that's by design, since playing in the SEC West is "the best league in ball and the best players in ball."
"We go hard, man," Fisher said. "Our players always say the practice is harder than the games, and that's the way we want it. We grind them out."
Those stars Fisher has landed in recruiting make each other better as a result.
"We practice every single day like it's a game," Leal said, saying the first-stringers battle each other. "When we go good on good, it's like a full game."
Leal and Kenyon Green say going up against the best gives them a healthy respect for what opponents have to face.
"Kenyon Green, man ... sheesh," Leal said Monday. "That dude there is hard to get past. He's very destructive."
"A monster," Green echoed of Leal. "He can play anything. He can play D-end, in the interior. He's so fast, to be that big, it's crazy. He wants to be in the backfield each play. You're gonna have to do everything you can to stop him, because he's gonna be back there regardless."
Leal and a deep, talented defensive line have put teeth into the run defense, allowing just 100.8 yards per game, which ranks in the top 10 nationally. A&M held three teams -- South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU -- to 50 rushing yards or less. Against the pass, the Aggies have generated pressure on 33.4% of dropbacks (third best in the SEC) despite sending five or more rushers on just 12% of those plays (second lowest in the conference).
The results have given those who have helped engineer a previous turnaround at A&M reason to believe in a similar future under Fisher's plan.
"What A&M has today more than they had last year is the toughness of the football team is showing up," said former coach Jackie Sherrill, who won three straight conference titles starting in his fourth season in College Station. "You have to have maturity to win, because the older players control the locker room. You can take Isaiah Spiller, for example; a much better player today than he was last year. That is maturity; that is toughness."
One of Sherrill's former quarterbacks, who helped lead the Aggies to a top-10 finish as a freshman in 1987, sees it too.
"That's what Jimbo wants to do," Bucky Richardson said. "He likes to take your will away. They have the ability to run the ball when they have to. And Kellen Mond is playing the best football of his career, for sure. He's playing clean, not turning the ball over. Man, when you have that combination, you're tough to beat."
With a win over Tennessee, A&M would be in a position for one of the four playoff spots, where it certainly wants to be. But by any measure, this has already been a historic season.
The win over Florida snapped a nine-game losing streak against AP top-five teams and was the Aggies' first home win against a top-five team since 2002. Between 2011 and 2016, A&M was ranked in the top 10 in the regular season six times. In four of those seasons, it finished unranked; and once, it finished 18th. In Johnny Manziel's Heisman season in 2012, the Aggies finished at No. 5, just their fourth top-10 finish in the past 30 years.
There are no Heisman candidates, no generational talents carrying the load on this year's team. That's why this season is so different when looking at A&M from a historical perspective.
"The things that make this football team good are so repeatable," McGee said. "You're not asking for amazing performances out of one or two players."
Publicly, Fisher isn't ready to make a campaign speech for a playoff spot. He believes the committee has a method in mind and isn't much swayed by it.
"All the lobbying becomes good social media," Fisher said. "I don't know how much it really works when you get right down to it."
But Sherrill, never one to shy away from words, recalled one of the Aggies' favorite mantras from his era.
"You better get your licks in now while you can," Sherrill said after a 47-9 loss to SMU in 1982, "because we're going to be awesome."
Now, like Fisher, he believes that it ain't gonna be like it used to be for the A&M program after this season.
"I think they've gotten some licks in," Sherrill said, "and they're repaying those licks."