Nevertheless -- even in the face of that political possibility -- the notion of surviving a September college football game takes on its purest form after a team has lost. That wound, that first setback, that Week 1 (or Week 2) punch in the gut, forces an already-strained team and an already-embattled coaching staff to respond to a highly negative event within the course of the season.
When two such teams and coaching staffs meet in September, the cutthroat nature of college football is laid bare.
Plenty of coaching tenures, plenty of program destinies and futures, are decided in late-October or early-November games which become the products of a long buildup fans can see from a mile away. These moments are profound and emotionally freighted, but the parties involved have time to brace for the occasion and absorb it.
The September survival game -- abrupt, immediate, before the temperatures fall and the leaves change colors -- thrusts a truckload of stress, even paralysis, upon a fan base. The knowledge among coaches of a terrifying prospect -- namely, that if this early stage of the journey isn't handled well, the next two months will be one prolonged death march of shame and humiliation -- creates an especially cruel and savage quality to this particular event.
Consider this prospect, too, since some coaches -- while not directly on the hot seat -- might be prime hot seat candidates the following season: If a program suffers a season-crippling loss in September, essentially ending that year's goals and aspirations one month into the campaign, it becomes that much easier for university administrators and decision makers (people unwilling to pay a large buyout sum in the present moment but open to the possibility one year later) to hand out a pink slip the following season.
September survival games are supreme college football crucibles.
Welcome to Texas A&M-Arkansas this Saturday in JerryWorld.
Sumlin is the coach on the hot seat in the present tense. Bret Bielema of Arkansas -- who has also already suffered a bad loss (at home to TCU) -- owns a buyout likely too hefty for UA brass to eat in 2017. Though a bad season this year ought to mean termination for Bielema on merit, people in and around the program will tell outsiders such as myself that the school is stuck with its coach through 2018 at the very least. Stadium expansion plans in Fayetteville represent a central reason why the school won't buy out Bielema any earlier than absolutely necessary.
Sumlin has to win this game to have any realistic hope of somehow keeping his job one more year. Bielema isn't coaching for 2017 -- he is coaching this game so that 2018 hot-seat talk can subside.
What magnifies the meaning of the moment for each coach is the recent history of this series. Bielema has never beaten Sumlin in the Hogs-Aggies clash. Breaking through could change perceptions, but it could also transform the confidence inside the UA locker room (the more important component of this picture). Sumlin, on the other hand -- as a result of never having lost to Bielema in the A&M-Arkansas series -- will feel that much more shattered if his team loses its edge over an old Southwest Conference rival.
Better games await Saturday in Week 4. Bigger games await, too.
Yet, the delicious tension and terror of a September survival game makes A&M-Arkansas a drama that should not be dismissed or ignored.