Matt Campbell Northern Iowa 2021

Matt Campbell greets the Cyclones during their warmups in their season opener against Northern Iowa on Sept. 4.

AMES- Saturday's Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk matchup is a watershed moment for Iowa State.

I know that claim may seem exaggerated and that it doesn't fit in line with how Matt Campbell and the Cyclones have approached their rise in national prominence over the last five years: Outcome-aware but process-driven. But it's time for the Cyclones to seize the moment against their in-state rivals and win. This program has heights it wants to reach. And it won't reach them if they're not viewed as a true top-10 team. 

Fair or not, that's the price that come with being picked as a top-10 team. You have to prove to those that evaluate you that you belong week in and week out - otherwise opportunities and the benefit of the doubt are given to someone else.

Mike Rose said as much in Tuesday's media availability, with the senior linebacker and reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year commenting on the importance of taking Saturday in stride as another game — but not before mentioning that Saturday is a chance to take another step forward. 

Iowa State comes into this rivalry game as the No.9 team in the country, with their opponent Iowa jumping eight spots to No.10.

A ranked matchup has never happened between these two. And the College Football Playoff is within reach, so Iowa State can't afford to let an early top-10 win like this pass by.

“I know our team is just approaching like any game, every game is super important so this is just another step in where we’re trying to go," Rose said.

I think we all know where Iowa State is trying to go: A chance to contend for a national title. Crazy or not, the Cyclones are close to knocking on the door. They've got Heisman contenders, a defense loaded with All-Big 12 talent and a culture very few programs can match. Saturday will prove whether they're ready to make the country take them seriously.

Now with all of that said, losing to Iowa doesn't necessarily end all hopes of making this year's Playoff. One-loss teams have made up a majority of the playoff field since its inception, but losing this early in the season always hurts the top half of the college football pecking order when it comes time to scour each team's respective Playoff resume.

Brock Purdy CyHawk 2019 pass

Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy makes the pass during the Iowa vs. Iowa State football game Sept. 14, 2019.

'Iowa State losing to a top-10 Iowa team when they are more talented than the Hawkeyes top to bottom and playing at home as the higher-ranked team?'

I can see the skeptics grow and it will be incredibly hard for Iowa State to overcome that noise even if it has another stellar conference season.

After all, the playoff committee has never put in a two-loss team. And the Cyclones still have to play Texas, TCU, West Virginia and Oklahoma in the latter half of their schedule. In order to be in the conversation as long as possible, Iowa State has to beat Iowa on Saturday to give itself a chance to be around the top five as early and long as possible.

Up-hill battles are rarely won in the politics of picking the playoff field.

“This is a big game for everyone, especially for a lot of our veterans on our team," Rose said. "We haven't beaten them [Iowa] yet [since 2014], so that’s definitely on our minds and stuff. We gotta know that’s on the table, but we also gotta treat it as any other game."

Bet you have never heard this one before: Campbell is 0-4 against the Hawkeyes in his historic transformation of Iowa State.

It's a sore spot on his legacy so far to those who value the nature of the in-state dominance storyline of the rivalry. But Saturday's stakes are bigger than that. They're bigger than ever before.

Campbell and the Cyclones have chosen not to publicly state the importance of winning Saturday's game as a signal to the rest of the sport. Nor should they. But I'd be shocked if Rose's sentiment isn't shared by others in the program.

Obviously, Iowa State can lose Saturday and still win a Big 12 title and I'd consider it a success. This isn't me saying it's a national title or bust. But it's well documented how talented and experienced this year's team is.

They know how good they are and how good they can be. Opportunities like Saturday don't come around too often for a program with Iowa State's history.

“I have high expectations of myself and my team," Breece Hall said Tuesday to reporters. "And everybody else, we all have high expectations of each other and I feel like as whole we didn’t come out and play like we should have [last Saturday vs Northern Iowa]."

We'll find out this weekend if Iowa State is ready to make the jump outside of a contending Big 12 team and truly be a national title contender.

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