The biggest opening weekend in college football history is a week away, and in it, several high-profile head coaches who need big wins will be on the national stage.
LSU’s Les Miles was nearly run out of town last November, but topped Texas A&M in the final weekend and was informed prior to the postgame press conference that he’d be allowed to keep his job. His Tigers will travel to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on opening weekend to take on the home-state Badgers.
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin hasn’t led his team to contention in the SEC West since former quarterback Johnny Manziel pulled out some Heisman magic in November 2012. He’ll lead his crew against a talented UCLA squad in College Station, Texas, next Saturday afternoon in a huge Week 1 test.
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn nearly led his Tigers to a national title in his first season at the helm in 2013, but has dropped nine of his last 11 SEC games and is fresh off a 7-6 season in 2015 that started with the Tigers all the way up at No. 6. To make matters worse, Malzahn’s team hosts national runner-up and No. 2 Clemson Saturday night on the Plains.
On top of that, two other SEC head coaches on the hot seat according to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, have challenges in Week 1 against Southern Miss and South Carolina, respectively.
Who needs a win the most?
Without question, it’s Sumlin.
The fifth-year head coach of the Aggies chimed in at No. 9 on Feldman’s hot seat list, and needs to lead his program back into the division title conversation this season after back-to-back 8-5 seasons. The Aggies haven’t finished above .500 in the conference since Sumlin’s first season, when they posted a 6-2 record in the SEC and an 11-2 overall record.
The 16th-ranked Bruins will come to what might seem like a hostile environment at Kyle Field in College Station, but that’s more myth than reality.
The Aggies don’t win big home games under Sumlin. The biggest home win during his career has been either against Vanderbilt in 2013—which finished 23rd in the AP poll—or Mississippi State last year. Whichever side of the aisle you fall in that argument, it’s a pretty depressing argument.
Getting a win in front of the home crowd—specifically the decision-makers—in Week 1 will take some heat off Sumlin’s shoulders and set his team up for a big Week 3 showdown on the Plains with Malzahn’s Tigers—a game in which the road team has won every season since 2012.
Plus, it’s a big-time chess match.
New Aggie offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was with UCLA for the previous four seasons, and will undoubtedly be an asset in both the offensive and defensive meeting rooms.
“Yeah, we’ll have some feedback on UCLA,” Sumlin said at SEC media days. “But I think people—as soon as you say that, you know, he did work at UCLA for [head coach] Jim Mora. So Jim knows a little bit about Noah Mazzone, too. That’s give and take in that deal.”
Or, to put it more simply, it’s a battle of wits between coaching staffs.
If Sumlin fails, it won’t take long for those decision-makers to turn their attention down the road to everybody’s up-and-coming coaching darling, Tom Herman. It just so happens that his Houston Cougars are in a statement game of their own on opening weekend, when they square off against defending Big 12 champion and College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Then it could become a game of politics deep in the heart of Texas.
If Sumlin falters early and there’s another major school in the same boat (LSU, Auburn, Texas, etc.), Texas A&M could be forced to make a quick decision and try to get a head start in the race for Herman.
A win against UCLA will delay the start of that race and give Aggies hope that Sumlin can turn this thing around.
Miles certainly can’t afford a loss to Wisconsin either, but he’ll have a chance to turn it around at home against an SEC opponent next week. All Malzahn needs to do is keep it close vs. Clemson, and then improve from week-to-week after that.
I’m not a believer that Mason is on that much of a hot seat at Vanderbilt. The defense was as solid as a rock last year, there’s a tremendous running back in Nashville named Ralph Webb who quietly topped the 1,000-yard mark without the benefit of a passing game last year and Kyle Shurmur is entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback in fall camp—a first in Mason’s three years at the helm.
Stoops might drop a game to Southern Miss, which would be sub-optimal. But as long as the Wildcats to rebound to make a bowl game, his job is safe. If they lose that game and it comes back to haunt them down the road, it could get interesting in Lexington.
One of the biggest knocks against Sumlin is the lack of big home wins, and UCLA provides that opportunity.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football