A lot has been written this week about this game being a "statement" game for both Iowa State and Texas Tech. That's true to some extent. Winning this game isn't going to reverberate around college football the way Iowa State's win over Oklahoma State or Texas Tech's win over Oklahoma did last year. It's not a statement game in the sense that it's going to put either program on the national map this year or upset the landscape of college football.
But it is a statement game relative to each program and what that program wants to achieve. For Iowa State, that statement is winning more than three conference games this year. Paul Rhoads mentioned this goal multiple times leading up to the season, and that's interesting for a few reasons. Rhoads talks a lot about continuous improvement for the Iowa State program, but he rarely sets definitive goals. He prefers to speak in larger generalities about the Cyclones and what he's trying to achieve. Save one exception:
In Paul Rhoads' first year, he set a goal of going to a bowl game. That seemed like a ridiculous challenge for a program that was on its third coach in four years and had won a grand total of nine games in the previous three years. But Rhoads laid out the goal in an early team meeting, and let fans and the media know about it after the fact. And the crazy thing is, he did it. He scraped together a group of players and straight-up willed them to six regular season wins and a victory in the Insight Bowl.
It was rarely pretty. Hell, the 2009 Nebraska game is probably one of the uglier games of football ever played. But Rhoads knew what getting to a bowl game would mean for the program's future. The Nebraska game that year and the subsequent locker room speech gave Paul Rhoads and Iowa State national recognition. The bowl game victory gave Rhoads the trust and loyalty of his players. Rhoads promised the 2009 Cyclones a bowl victory, and together they delivered a bowl victory.
Which leads us to the Texas Tech game Saturday and Paul Rhoads next promise. In a much-quoted speech at Meet the Coaches night this summer, Rhoads fairly barked, "Three wins in the Big 12 conference in our first three years might have been right for what we had. But it's NOT what we aspire to achieve as we move forward."
Inspiring stuff. And it tells fans what the Cyclone's next game is all about. Paul Rhoads has laid down a public challenge for his team. The goal for the 2012 Cyclones is to win at least four conference games, hopefully more. Since Rhoads mentions definitive goals like this so infrequently, it means something.
The key to winning four or more games in the Big 12 this year is winning manageable games. Iowa State is probably only going to be favored against Kansas this year, so winning a game at home against one of the two Big 12 teams that missed a bowl last year is crucial. Looking at the schedule, there's not a Big 12 game this year that's impossible to win for Iowa State. But it's going to be way easier to beat a Texas Tech team at home that Iowa State has absolutely owned over the last two years than a team like Texas on the road.
For Texas Tech, this game has to be maddening. Iowa State is a team that the Red Raiders are used to dominating. Other than the last two years, the only time ISU has beaten Texas Tech was the infamous 2002 game when Seneca Wallace launched his Heisman highlight tape.
So the way Iowa State has beaten Texas Tech recently must be frustrating for Red Raider fans and Tommy Tuberville. This is a game they're used to winning, and the fact that Tuberville hasn't been winning these games has put him on the hot seat. Texas Tech needs to win this game to show that Tommy Tuberville is the right head coach in Lubbock. If he loses, it could mean a reevaluation of the Texas Tech coaching staff is coming after this season.
What does it all mean? Progress. Iowa State should win this game to prove to the players and fans that Iowa State is making forward progress. With a win tomorrow, ISU will start off 1-0 in conference play. A loss won't end the Cyclone's season by any means, but a win will mean Iowa State is 4-0 for the first time since 2000. That was a nine-win season. A nine-win season in Paul Rhoads' fourth year? That's progress.