Texas has played bigger games in the Tom Herman era -- the 2018 Big 12 Championship, the 2019 Sugar Bowl, the LSU game last September. But Texas hasn't played a bigger game for Tom Herman specifically than this one.
"If Texas loses on Friday, it's a wrap for Tom Herman," Orangebloods publisher Geoff Ketchum writes. A loss means Herman would go 0-for-the-Sam-Ehlinger era in winning Big 12 titles, dropping the 'Horns to 9-7 in Big 12 play over his junior and senior seasons. (And that doesn't even touch all the drama going on off the field and on the recruiting trail.)
A win, though, and Texas is suddenly sitting pretty. Wins over a limping Kansas State team and a limp Kansas would elevate Texas to its second Big 12 title game in three years, likely in a rematch with Oklahoma. Win that and Texas is probably headed for a long-awaited showdown with Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Win that and Texas is in its strongest on-field position since 2009.
Five hundred yards' worth of gray area sit between those two extremes, but the Iowa State game represents the fork-in-the-road moment where the program will start moving toward one or the other.
That's what's on the line for Texas. Here's what everyone else is playing for this Thanksgiving weekend.
(Rankings based of College Football Playoff standings. All games Saturday unless noted otherwise.)
UCF (5-3, 4-3 AAC) at South Florida (1-7, 0-6 AAC) -- 3:30 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN
As USF has fallen, so have the War on I-4's stakes. Just three years after 9-1 USF visited 10-0 UCF with the AAC East on the line, USF is now playing to avoid its first winless season of AAC membership and its first 4-game losing streak to its archenemy.
Houston, meanwhile, continues getting the shortest end of the stick in 2020. Dana Holgorsen's team, despite being just 3-3 overall and 2-2 in AAC play, actually had a believable path to the title game. A win over Tulsa (5-1, 5-0 AAC) on Saturday would have put them a game behind the Hurricane in the standings -- and considering Tulsa closes with Cincinnati, the Cougars might actually be favored to reach the American Championship with a win over Tulsa.
But to beat Tulsa you have to play Tulsa, and that's not happening. Saturday's game was cancelled on Tuesday and will not be made up. It's Houston's sixth cancelation/postponement and Tulsa's seventh.
No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) at No. 25 North Carolina (6-2, 6-2 ACC) -- 3:30 p.m. ET Friday, ABC
We know what the Irish are playing for. For North Carolina, any hint of a successful season rides on this game.
Mack Brown's club exceeded expectations with a 7-6 finish last season, and this year was supposed to be a return to the ACC's first tier (non-Clemson edition). Beating Clemson was an admittedly tall task, but UNC believed it could play with -- and beat -- everyone else. After rising as high as No. 5 in the AP poll, North Carolina slunk out of the rankings with losses to Florida State and Virginia.
Here's their chance to announce their return, and for good (at least in 2020). A win here and another Notre Dame loss elsewhere sends the Heels to Charlotte, yes, but in the more immediate sense, North Carolina can supplant Miami as the ACC's No. 3 team by beating the Irish on Friday and the Hurricanes on Dec. 12.
UNC has never played in the Orange Bowl. Getting there would make 2020 an unqualified success while providing a legitimate springboard to even greater expectations in 2021, and that all rides on winning here.
No. 13 Iowa State (6-2, 6-1 Big 12) at No. 17 Texas (5-2, 4-2 Big 12) -- noon ET Friday, ABC
We covered what Texas is playing for up top, and now it's time to talk about Iowa State.
Matt Campbell has undoubtedly raised the bar in Ames, but he's yet to play for a Big 12 title. In fact, Iowa State never has. In double fact, Iowa State claims all of two conference championships, back when Clyde Williams led the Cyclones to Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles in 1911 and '12. The MVIAA eventually became the Big 6, then the Big 7, then the Big 8, and finally the Big 12.
A win on Friday sends Iowa State to Arlington to play in its first Big 12 Championship. Even a loss to West Virginia on Dec. 5 wouldn't knock them out.
Iowa State has come close to at least playing in the Big 12 title game before. In 2004 and '05 the Cyclones entered the season's final weekend leading the Big 12 North, only to lose in overtime both times. But even then the ISU's reward would have been to meet Oklahoma and Texas teams that would go on to play for BCS titles (Colorado won the North both years and lost the title games by a combined 112-6).
Here, Iowa State is playing for the chance to most likely face an Oklahoma team it already beat. Even if the Sooners have improved since then, Iowa State would enter the Big 12 Championship with at least a puncher's chance of victory.
I don't want to come out and definitively state this is Iowa State's biggest game in 108 years... but it very well might be.
Penn State (0-5) at Michigan (2-3) -- noon ET, ABC
Saturday will be Michigan and Penn State's 24th game, and the third where neither team is ranked. This game derives meaning from its rare lack of meaning.
While we're here, let's pour one out for the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry. The Gophers and Badgers have battled each other over Paul Bunyan's Axe every year since 1890, 129 straight. A year after perhaps the biggest Axe battle ever, Minnesota and Wisconsin will lose their claim to fame as college football's longest running annual rivalry. With Clemson-South Carolina also canceled, that honor will now be shared by Bedlam and the unnamed NC State-Wake Forest rivalry; both games have been played every year since 1910.
North Texas (3-3, 2-2 C-USA) at UTSA (6-4, 4-2 C-USA) -- 3 p.m. ET
C-USA West continues to be the strangest divisional race in college football history. UAB still leads the division at 2-1 and will not play for a fifth consecutive weekend after Saturday's game with Southern Miss was canceled.
The Blazers are, for now, off next weekend, meaning it looks like they'll play all of four conference games this year. That would be enough, in the conference's eyes, to crown UAB as its West champion for a third straight year, so long as the Blazers play and beat Rice on Dec. 12.
If UAB is somehow disqualified, UTSA is the next man up by virtue of the Roadrunners' 27-26 win over Louisiana Tech back on Oct. 24.
Kent State (3-0) at Buffalo (3-0) -- noon ET, CBS Sports Network
Ball State (2-1) at Toledo (2-1) -- noon ET, ESPN3
The MAC schedule finally moves to Saturdays, and just in the nick of time for this feature.
Kent State and Buffalo won't exactly clinch the MAC East with a win Saturday afternoon, but they'd be pretty darn close. (Kent State has 1-1 Miami (Ohio) and 1-1 Ohio ahead, Buffalo has Ohio.)
Everyone in the West is chasing 3-0 Western Michigan, who gets 0-3 Northern Illinois on Saturday. Toledo has already lost to WMU so they'd need help even with a win, but Ball State doesn't get WMU until Sept. 12, so Mike Neu's team is still very much in control of its own destiny.
San Jose State (4-0) at Boise State (4-1, 4-0 MW) -- 4 p.m. ET, Fox
Three teams remain unbeaten in the Mountain West, two of them meet on the blue turf.
Similar to the Indiana-Ohio State dynamic last week, one side hardly plays games like these and the other does so every year. Boise State has won its conference 14 times in 21 years, including two of the last three. They've played in the Mountain West Championship four times in the past six years.
San Jose State, meanwhile, claims 16 conference titles, but all 16 came either in a Division II conference or in a league that no longer sponsors football -- the most recent coming in 1991. Not exactly fresh currency. Since 1999, a stretch where Boise State owns 14 conference crowns, San Jose State owns three winning seasons.
Needless to say, this is probably the biggest game in San Jose State history -- but not necessarily a determinative one. The Spartans end the season with 5-0 Nevada, so even a 50-0 loss in Boise wouldn't close the door on Brent Brennan's Mountain West title hopes.
Stanford (0-2) at Cal (0-2) -- 4 p.m. ET Friday, Fox
No. 15 Oregon (3-0) at Oregon State (1-2) -- 7:30 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN
Colorado (2-0) at No. 18 USC (3-0) -- 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Colorado heads to Los Angeles for a game that might or might not decide the Pac-12 South, depending on whether or not it gets canceled in between the time I write this and when you read it. Isn't 2020 fun, kids?
Elsewhere, a quick look at a couple rivalry games that mean very little in the standings and a ton in the hearts of those with a stake in them:
-- Oregon has taken three in a row over Oregon State, 11 of 12, 19 of 26, and 34 of 45.
-- The Stanford-Cal series is one of those that tends to continue in the way it's already going. Stanford won seven in a row from 1995-01, Cal claimed seven of eight from 2002-09, and then Stanford answered with nine straight. Cal won the 2019 Big Game, 24-20 at Stanford. So either Cal will get a new streak going or Stanford will walk away having won 10 of 11 for the first time since the series' 1892 creation.
No. 22 Auburn (5-2) at No. 1 Alabama (7-0) -- 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Mississippi State (2-5) at Ole Miss (3-4) -- 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network
LSU (3-4) at No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1) -- 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Alabama takes the field without Nick Saban for the first time since Dec. 28, 2006. The Iron Bowl tends to produce classics at Jordan-Hare and duds at Bryant-Denny. Other than the Camback of 2010, here are the Saban-era results in Tuscaloosa, all Tide victories: 36-0, 49-0, 55-44, 30-12, 52-21. Alabama enters Saturday a 24-point favorite.
They're actually going to do it. Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin are going to coach the Egg Bowl, a year after fake dog pee led to regime changes at both Mississippi schools. State has won two straight; since 1925, the Bulldogs have only taken three straight twice -- 2009-11 and 1939-42.
Finally, Texas A&M is fighting to take two of three from LSU and possibly send the Tigers to the SEC West basement, one year after winning the entire damn thing. If Mississippi State wins the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs, Tigers and Rebels will be in a three-way tie for seventh at 3-5. LSU plays Ole Miss next week and closes with Florida, putting 15-0 to 3-7 squarely within the realm of possibilities.
No. 20 Coastal Carolina (8-0, 6-0 Sun Belt) at Texas State (2-9, 2-5 Sun Belt) -- 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Louisiana-Lafayette has already clinched its third Sun Belt West title in as many seasons, and Coastal Carolina can officially win its first East crown with a win in San Marcos. The Chanticleers have a mulligan in the bag -- their Dec. 12 finale at Troy -- thanks to last week's win over App State, but they'd much prefer not to use it.