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Why Oklahoma vs. Houston is the biggest game of the weekend

Alabama-USC boasts the most history and ESPN's designation as its shiniest match-up of the weekend. GameDay is headed to LSU-Wisconsin. Notre Dame-Texas and Florida State-Ole Miss were granted exclusive broadcast windows. But Oklahoma-Houston will be the weekend's biggest, most impactful game.

Here's why.

For Houston, simply, this is it. The Coogs have played in multiple Cotton Bowls, they've been ranked as high as No. 2 in October 1967 and No. 3 in November 1990, and they won a Peach Bowl over Florida State in their most recent game. But, still, there's an argument to be made this is the biggest game in the program's 82-year history. Their hopes of carrying not just their football program, not just their athletics department but their entire institution into the Big 12 ride, tangentially, on this game. A loss won't keep them out of the league, but a win over the Big 12's defending champions and proudest program, in a stadium full of screaming red Cougars fans, would do nothing but boost their appearance to the powers that be.

And there's no denying Houston's national championship hopes -- shaky as they may be -- ride solely on beating Oklahoma. It's simple arithmetic. Barring unforeseen chaos, the Big Ten champion (Ohio State or Michigan), the ACC champion (Clemson or Florida State) and the SEC champion (Alabama or the field), will claim three College Football Playoff spots. That leaves one for the Big 12 champion, the Pac-12 champion or Houston. A loss to Oklahoma automatically puts Houston behind the Big 12 champion, no matter who it ends up being.

The Group of 5's chance of cracking the glass ceiling ride entirely on Houston, too. Boise State or San Diego State may very well go unbeaten out of the Mountain West, but recent history has taught us it takes two spotless seasons for mid-majors to gain the respect that Power 5 champions gain in one. Remember back to 2009: TCU and Boise State both went undefeated, yet sat in line behind a wholly average Big East champion in Cincinnati and, in Boise's case, a one-loss, non-SEC champion Florida team to reach the BCS National Championship. It wasn't until 2010, with both the Frogs and Broncos again undefeated until the regular season's last Saturday, that they moved into position to play for the national championship had Auburn not mounted a miraculous comeback at Alabama.

So, yeah, their conference championship hopes, their Cotton Bowl bid, their Big 12 chances don't ride on what happens Saturday afternoon, but Houston's shot-at-the-moon national title odds absolutely do.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons college football is superior to the NFL. There won't be as many impactful NFL games on any November weekend, much less September.)

Oklahoma doesn't have quite the same stakes riding on Saturday's game as their opponent, but the Sooners still have more on the line than any other Power 5 team. The reasons are this:

  1. No two-loss team has ever reached the College Football Playoff in the system's brief history.
  2. No Big 12 team has ever run the table in the conference's five-year history of playing a 9-game, round-robin schedule.
  3. Ohio State visits Norman in two weeks.

You do the math.

The intrigue of Oklahoma-Houston extends beyond the story lines and on to the field of play, too. Oklahoma is a solid favorite both among the books in Vegas and among college football punditry, but Houston will test the Sooners for four quarters. The Cougars are well coached and feature one of the most dangerous signal callers in the sport in Greg Ward, Jr. This is a team that went 3-0 against Power 5 opponents last season, each win more impressive than the last.

Oklahoma enters Saturday's game with a recent history of coughing all over itself as a heavy favorite, especially in this specific situation. Bob Stoops' 2005 team entered the season ranked No. 7 and lost its opener 17-10 to then-Mountain West member TCU. His 2009 team entered the year ranked No. 3 and fell 14-13 to No. 20 BYU in the opening game of the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. OU entered both the '05 and '09 seasons fresh off a Big 12 championship and a national championship appearance with a legitimate Heisman front-runner in its backfield. It ended both seasons with only eight wins.

Those games, those seasons won't officially have any impact on tomorrow's game. But Oklahoma will bring some threatening ghosts on the NRG Stadium field with them.

OU-Houston won't attract the most eyeballs and it doesn't have the most history. But no game will be more competitive, and no opening week result will have a longer, louder echo than this one.