It’s no secret that this is an important year for Charlie Strong and the Texas Longhorns. Some would go so far as to categorize the upcoming season as make-or-break for Strong, who has yet to post a winning season as head coach in Austin. There are many positives to look at respective to the work Strong has put in headed into his 3rd year as head coach, but the time for prep-work has ended. Fans, alumni, players and staff want to see on-field results translating to a winning season. Anything less would be considered a step-back, leaving the program, once again, in tumult.

Let’s look at the Top-5 key games on the Texas schedule that will help make or break a winning season in 2016.

5.) Texas @ Cal, September 17th, 2016

The first true road game for expected starter at quarterback, Shane Buechele, awaits in Berkley against the team that handed Texas arguably their most heartbreaking loss of the 2015 campaign. This matchup will give Buechele a true taste of what it’s like to quarterback his team on the road, and all the pressures that come with it. Outcome aside, this is the game for him to make mistakes and learn from them so he is ready to go as Big 12 play commences after the bye week.

4.) Texas @ Oklahoma State, October 1st, 2016

This is the opening game in conference play for the Longhorns, and they are thrown right into the fire in Stillwater. OSU is poised for a big year with almost every starter returning from last year, and playing in Stillwater is never an easy task. Winning this game and starting off conference play on the right foot would be a huge momentum swing for the Longhorns who play the Sooners in the Red River Shootout the following week.

3.) TCU @ Texas, November 25th, 2016

The final game of the season comes the day after Thanksgiving, when the country will still be tuned in to football. Besides it being the final regular season game the Longhorns play, they might need this win for multiple reasons. They could be in contention for the Big 12, or be on the bubble for a bowl berth. Avenging the 50-7 beating in Fort Worth last season and leaving a lasting impression in the minds of the bowl selectors and fans could be huge for Strong’s future in Austin.

2.) Texas VS. OU, October 8th, 2016.

This one goes without saying. The virtual midpoint in the season, and the two Big 12 powerhouses come together in Dallas for one huge weekend. A win or loss in this game almost always gives an indication on how the rest of the season is going to trend for the two schools (sans last year). If Texas can emerge from the two week gauntlet of OSU and OU with at least one win, that will set them up well for the rest of the year - the two favorites to win the Big 12 will be out of the way in the first five games.

1.) Notre Dame @ Texas, September 4th, 2016.

Two of the nation’s most storied programs will face off in Austin to kick off the 2016 season. The game will be played on Sunday night and it will be the only televised game at the time, which means the eyes of the nation will be tuned in. It’s an important game for both programs, but it’s critical for Texas. Notre Dame has very high expectations for this year, and it is probably the most talented team Texas will see throughout the season. Playing the Irish right out of the gate will be a good measuring stick for the Longhorns, as team strengths and weaknesses will indubitably manifest themselves. While Notre Dame is favored to win this game, if Texas can find a way to pull of the upset, it could be a sign of things finally turning around in Austin. As someone put it to me recently, “If Texas wins that game, I have them as my dark-horse team in the entire country, let alone the Big 12.”

It’s not often that things work out how you would like them to during the course of the year. If I was told Texas would be guaranteed 3 wins out of these 5 games before the season started, I would take those three games and run. Winning 3 out of these 5 would mean, in all likelihood, that they would at least amass a bare minimum of 6 wins (given the nature of the rest of their schedule), good enough for a bowl berth. What they do with the seven games not mentioned here will be determined by how they play in these 5 key games. Winning key games builds momentum into the next week and so on, and the momentum factor will be ever so important in a year that has high stakes for the Texas program and its future.