Hot Seat Weekend(s) is here, right off the bat, for an SEC whose claim to conference superiority has slipped due to a wave of still unproven head coaches.
It wasn’t long ago that the SEC had the finest collection of coaches in America. That included four who had won national titles (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Steve Spurrier) plus a slew of proven winners and talented up-and-comers such as Mark Richt, Dan Mullen, Bobby Petrino, Hugh Freeze, Gary Pinkel, James Franklin and others.
Not coincidentally, top to bottom dominance (not merely eight consecutive national titles) followed.
Now they have Saban at Alabama and Mullen at Mississippi State and … well … this weekend (and the following) may go a long way in determining if that list can even be extended.
The biggest match-up is Alabama playing Florida State in Atlanta, but Nick Saban is Nick Saban no matter what happens there.
The questions are everywhere else. One game doesn’t define a season, or a program, but some critical victories and everything looks on the upswing. Not just this season, but in establishing credibility and hope with fans and recruits.
Some big losses, and the specter of pink slips could loom over some campuses (Texas A&M, Tennessee), a sense of dread that things aren’t going to get appreciably better in others.
It’s not easy to recall such an opening season stretch for so many programs. So here are the important matchups. (It goes without saying a major upset of anyone by a Sun Belt-esque team would be a disaster.)
It wasn’t long ago that Kevin Sumlin (and Johnny Manziel) appeared to be building a powerhouse. Three 8-win seasons later, the Aggies have incredible facilities, budgets and recruiting classes, but not much else to show for it.
“Coach knows he has to win and he has to win this year,” athletic director Scott Woodward said this summer on “The Paul Finebaum Show,” officially putting Sumlin on notice. The game is in California and potential No. 1 draft pick Josh Rosen is the Bruins QB. UCLA won just four times a year ago, though.
Win and the Aggies might be onto something. They certainly have the talent.
Lose and the pressure on Sumlin is immense. Schools don’t wait for entire season’s to play out anymore before making moves, especially when Chip Kelly is a free agent waiting around to be courted.
Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (Atlanta)
You can’t turn the corner in Knoxville without hearing some variation of “Butch can’t win the East.” For Butch Jones, anything less will be a disappointment. The recruiting has been strong – the junior and senior classes both ranked top five nationally on signing day, per Rivals.com
Can he win though? Can he turn the corner past 9-4? Georgia Tech can make anyone look like a fool. The game is primetime Monday night. Everyone will be watching. It’s a brilliant opportunity for the Vols to show America this is a new day … or bitterly disappoint and suggest a ceiling has been hit under Jones.
South Carolina vs. N.C. State (Charlotte)
Steve Spurrier delivered three consecutive 11-victory seasons before fading a couple years back. Will Muschamp arrived after getting fired by Florida and went 6-7 in his first season. The program looks like it might be returning to its historic mean (good but never great), all while archrival Clemson is up the road winning a national championship and captivating the region.
Muschamp’s job doesn’t rely on this game, but with a rebuilt offense, N.C. State is beatable. This would be a very, very good win for the Gamecocks, a statement of momentum. A loss would be a statement, too, and not one that bodes well for the long term, as Dabo Swinney extends his considerable shadow from up there in the mountains.
Florida vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
The Gators have won the SEC East the last two years but are a far cry from the days of national prominence under Meyer or Spurrier. They lost four games each season. They are still looking for a quarterback. They are trying to keep up with archrival Florida State and a resurgent Miami in recruiting.
Two season’s ago, Jim McElwain met Jim Harbaugh and Michigan crushed Florida 41-7. Anything close to that would blunt enthusiasm in the rebuild. McElwain can coach, but Florida fans have understandably high expectations. Beating an in flux Michigan team is certainly among them.
LSU vs. BYU (in New Orleans)
The Tigers got a boost when Hurricane Harvey forced the game to be moved to the Superdome. It’s not that Houston was going to be a “neutral” site, but this isn’t even close.
Still, BYU is always tough and Ed Orgeron is making his debut as LSU’s “non-interim” head coach with a lot of eyes on him. That includes the vast array of top-line recruits in New Orleans and across the state. Showing them that LSU football is in good hands and his Tiger teams won’t resemble the disorganized clubs he had at Ole Miss will go a long way to maintaining the program’s run of excellence this century. If not, questions form quickly.
A scheduling quirk (UK was desperate for a game when UAB disbanded its program in 2015) puts the Wildcats on the road and makes this one interesting. Mark Stoops has done well recruiting, especially luring Ohio and Michigan kids to the nearest SEC outpost. On-field results have slowly followed – 7-6 last year, including a victory over Louisville. There was also a loss at home to Southern Miss, however, that Stoops said “disgusts me.” Avenging that disappointment in a tough road environment would certainly be meaningful.
Georgia at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
Kirby Smart went 8-5 in his first season in Athens. His job isn’t in jeopardy, but Year 2 is when fans want to see progress. Mark Richt was always criticized for not getting over the hump, but he almost always got to the hump. Bulldog fans may have already realized that the hump is a nice place to be.
The game is in South Bend, but Georgia has a slew of starters back, Notre Dame went 4-8 last season and the Irish routinely struggle to win against Southern powers. The question here is if Georgia is still a Southern power.
Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)
Auburn played for the national title in Gus Malzahn’s first season. Since then: 8-5, 7-6, 8-5. The Tigers need to be better than that. No one is going to crush them if they can’t beat the defending national champs on the road, but a good showing here sure would suggest plenty more good showings are coming.
The program needs a jolt. Here’s a major opportunity for one.
TCU at Arkansas (Sept. 9)
Bret Bielema inherited a mess, got the Razorbacks up to solid and then hasn’t made the next step. That’s a missed opportunity, as the conference has faded a bit. And plenty of Razorback fans recall Bobby Petrino had them in the top 10 before dumping his Harley with a former volleyball player on the back.
Under Bielema, Arkansas has shown flashes but been terribly inconsistent. He’s just 25-26 in Fayetteville and while his job seems safe, Year 5 is an ideal time to make a move. Enter a good TCU team that the Hogs outlasted in double overtime last season. This game is on CBS national in the late afternoon slot, a big spotlight for a team always seeking attention.
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