Three SEC head coaches—LSU's Les Miles, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Auburn's Gus Malzahn—will enter September on three of the hottest seats in America.
Making it to October without burning themselves will be incredibly challenging.
When toe meets leather for the 2016 season, it will be one of the most pressure-packed months of each of their careers. Each has a roster that's absolutely loaded. Each has major questions that need to be addressed in the offseason. Each has an early-season gauntlet that will make or break their season and, possibly, their career.
|LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn September Schedules|
|Sept. 3||vs. Wisconsin (in Green Bay, Wisconsin)||UCLA||Clemson|
|Sept. 10||Jacksonville State||Praire View||Arkansas State|
|Sept. 17||Mississippi State||at Auburn||Texas A&M|
|Sept. 24||at Auburn||Arkansas (in Arlington, Texas)||LSU|
Even the traditional Week 2 diet of cupcakes isn't exactly a cakewalk.
LSU hosts Jacksonville State, which nearly upset Auburn last year and lost the FCS National Championship Game to North Dakota State. Auburn hosts Arkansas State, which has averaged 8.8 wins per year over the last half-decade and would love to spring the upset on Malzahn—who led the Red Wolves in 2012.
The only true cupcake for any of the three teams in September is the Aggies' game vs. Prairie View.
By the end of September, these coaches will either be truly fighting for their jobs during the season or will have done enough to cool their seats to a point where the rest of the year won't be full of "noise in the system."
Let's start with LSU.
The Tigers will head to the land of the Green Bay Packers to take on a Wisconsin team to open the season. While Wisconsin isn't exactly known as national power, it's an old-school team that wants to punch teams in the mouth and wear them down.
The Badgers have finished in the top three in defensive yards per play in the Big Ten in each of the last four years—including a league-best 4.41 under David Aranda in 2015.
If you don't think that they will want to make a statement to Aranda—who moved from Wisconsin to LSU this offseason—you're kidding yourself.
Tiger quarterback Brandon Harris is 2-3 as a starter in road games. While the Badgers will have their hands full stopping star running back Leonard Fournette, teams learned in November 2015 that stacking the box and forcing Harris to win the game with his arm is what makes LSU beatable.
After the Jacksonville State game, LSU hosts the always-physical Mississippi State Bulldogs and then visits Auburn—which is a rivalry known for strange things happening in a location in which LSU typically struggles (lost six of its last eight).
Miles pointed out on national signing day that this team is incredibly experienced and got an influx of talent with the third-ranked recruiting class.
"I like to look at how this veteran team that we've left intact, will return 18 starters, and when you look at a class that is this talented as this class come alongside a veteran team, we like our chances," he said in quotes emailed by LSU. "We certainly like our expectations, and we'll look to play to them."
Those expectations hinge on Harris and the offense getting off to a good start in 2016. If LSU finishes September 2-2 or worse, all of that goodwill Miles has built up over the last three months will evaporate, and the final two months of his 2016 campaign will be a carbon copy of the final month of the 2015 season.
For Texas A&M, a hot start is also very important.
Sumlin is 6-9 in conference home games during his Texas A&M career and has won only one game—regardless of conference affiliation—at home over an opponent that finished the season ranked (2013 Vanderbilt).
The only FBS team to enter Kyle Field during the month of September will be UCLA, and Sumlin needs to give the home crowd a reason to get excited.
Whatever happens against the Bruins, though, Sumlin's status will truly be determined in Weeks 3 and 4.
The Aggies have had success against Auburn on the Plains, but this game will take on a much different meaning. It's a desperation game. It's the biggest SEC swing game of September that will not only open conference play for both teams but define the narrative for both teams.
Who's back and who's reeling will be answered at Jordan-Hare Stadium when the Aggies and the Tigers meet.
It doesn't get any easier after the trip to the Plains. The Aggies' game against Arkansas at AT&T Stadium has come down to a late touchdown in each of the last two seasons—both of which were Aggie wins. Arkansas will always test a team's physicality, and it will do so against an Aggie team that is coming off a huge game the week before.
For Auburn, the two enormous games vs. Texas A&M and LSU have already been covered. To compound issues, Malzahn draws defending national runner-up Clemson in the season opener.
That Clemson team returns Heisman Trophy contender Deshaun Watson at quarterback, stud Wayne Gallman at running back, an offensive line that was young last year and turned into a force, a deep and talented wide receiving corps and a defense that—while forced to replace a few key pieces—is coached by one of the best in coordinator Brent Venables.
Malzahn then has the two-game stretch to open SEC play against the two other coaches on white-hot seats to close the month.
No pressure, Gus.
Through one practice and a month of offseason conditioning, Malzahn likes where his team is.
"You can tell this is a very close group," he said in quotes emailed by Auburn. "You can also tell that they’ve got a chip on their shoulder from last year, which I think is very healthy. Last year, we had an inexperienced team and we had some close losses, but these guys, a lot of them are coming back and they’re looking forward to getting out there and moving forward."
Conference championships aren't always won in September, but they can be lost very quickly. For three coaches of three of the most talented teams in the SEC West, the latter could result in the unemployment line come holiday season.
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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