Few such games are clearer than this Saturday's tilt between the Auburn Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field in College Station.
The surface context could not be any more obvious: Auburn has to play Georgia and Alabama later this month, so after a humiliating come-from-ahead loss to LSU -- blowing a 20-0 advantage -- a defeat in AggieLand would put Gus Malzahn on the unemployment line if he can't beat either the Dawgs or Crimson Tide. He might be able to lose to Georgia and Alabama and remain employed, especially if those two teams are 12-0 entering the SEC Championship Game, but he can't lose to those two teams AND falter against A&M.
As for Kevin Sumlin, the challenge this Saturday is not beating Auburn -- he has done that multiple times over the years. The true test for Sumlin is to win an SEC West home game.
Courtesy of college football Twitter resident Doug Keegan:
Since the start of the 2014 season (after Johnny Manziel left), Texas A&M has won ONE SEC WEST home game, against Mississippi State in 2015. A&M has been able to beat Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but not at Kyle Field under Sumlin. LSU, Ole Miss (even last year in its damaged state), Alabama -- they have all thrived at Kyle Field. Arkansas is always a neutral-site game. Mississippi State's win this past Saturday prevented A&M from claiming a second home-field win in an SEC West game the past four seasons. That's a remarkably consistent run of failure in a stadium which has been steadily renovated over time.
The inability to win SEC West home games against non-Alabama teams is the center of Kevin Sumlin's problems. A point of emphasis is that Texas A&M fans are among the most passionate anywhere in college football. Fans show up, tradition is upheld, and resources are devoted to the program. Not being able to make Kyle Field more of a (*puts on sunglasses*) 12th Man stings deeply for Aggie fans.
If Sumlin loses to Auburn and can't sweep LSU and Ole Miss on the road to close the season, it's very hard to see how he will stay in College Station.
All this is readily visible on the surface of Auburn-A&M.
What is more interesting -- and less certain: Should fans of either team WANT their side to lose this Saturday? The coaches need this game to survive, but do the fans WANT their coaches to survive?
Everything that has happened this year has exhausted the patience of the Tiger and Aggie fan bases. It's true that Sumlin has been the recipient of appalling, disgusting treatment from fans and people with a vested interest in the A&M program -- such displays of conduct should not be viewed as understandable or reasonable. In a broader context, though, emotions have run high -- to the point of breaking -- in AggieLand. Failing to keep those emotions in check is inexcusable, but the reality of mental fatigue is hard to deny in College Station.
Gus Malzahn hasn't been subjected to Sumlin-level treatment, but with current Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs about to be axed, plenty of Tiger fans see an opportunity for a fresh start in the athletic program, which means a similar reset button on the football field. One familiar truth about coaching tenures is that they should last as long as it is unclear if the coach can sustain a high (or higher) standard of performance. When it becomes clear the coach cannot make the cut on a continuous basis, the pink slip should arrive.
If you asked most Auburn fans, they would probably tell you that moment has arrived... but there is one plot complication left:
What if a win over A&M propels Auburn to a higher level of confidence and enables the Plainsmen to beat Georgia or Alabama? No matter how convinced many might be that Gus has run out of ideas, knocking Georgia out of the College Football Playoff or Alabama from the ranks of the unbeaten would rate as a significant accomplishment.
Skepticism about Auburn's ability to win a defining game might be warranted, but does that mean Malzahn shouldn't get a chance (from the public, not administrators) to prove himself one more time? This is not an attempt to answer or resolve the matter, merely to present it in its complexity. It's not an easy place to be for Auburn fans, caught between the need for a new coach and the desire to bag significant wins in a season which still has premier prizes (a possible New Year's six bowl, a 10-win season) on the table.
Texas A&M. Auburn. Two programs expect the best but struggle to consistently deliver it. Saturday, they won't play for championships, but they will play for a chance to make something of their seasons... and show which coach has run out of second chances.
The oddity: The fan base whose coach fails might be the happier one when it's all over, knowing it has a better start at a program-based reset in 2018.