College football is finally here, and you’ve likely read up on how good or bad your team will be 100 times. If you are a Cyclone fan who is anything like me, you know exactly where this team’s strengths and weaknesses are. In the age of the internet, we are exposed to an absurd amount of information (good and bad) and fans are more educated about their teams than they have ever been.
So I’m not going to act like you guys haven’t read a dozen previews about how good Iowa State’s receivers are and that there are concerns on the offensive and defensive lines. You know the details already, so I won’t take a deep-dive into them for you. Please go follow some of the great journalists doing fantastic work covering the Cyclones as their full-time job because they’re pretty good at it. But this is the Tailgate Society—the View from the Cheap Seats—so I’ll just give you some things to watch for both from the Cyclone side and the opponent’s side, as well as what to expect throughout the season.
Most Underrated Unit
Special Teams. Now, I understand it’s probably a stretch to call the entire special teams a “unit” and they are having to replace the best kicker in school history, but hear me out. Iowa State was consistently above average on special teams in the Paul Rhoads era and that continued last year under Campbell. In fact, FPI—ESPN’s poor attempt at advanced analytics—had the Cyclones ranked 8th nationally in special teams last season. While it’s nearly impossible to accurately quantify how good a special teams unit is, that number is encouraging—especially when the team returns its reliable punter in Colin Downing and multiple experienced returners. Pair that with positive news about the kicking battle between kickoff specialist Chris Francis and Oregon State graduate transfer Garrett Owens and there’s reason to be optimistic.
Campbell has done a great job of building depth and talent in his short time at Iowa State and special teams often benefits most where depth is concerned. Expect this unit to be the difference in at least one game this year.
Most Important Player
Jacob Park, QB, and I don’t think it’s close. Joel Lanning had one of the best seasons by a Cyclone QB in years, but much of his success could be attributed to what he was able to do with his feet. Unfortunately, history says that style of QB isn’t sustainable for an entire season or career at Iowa State (Jared Barnett, Steele Jantz, Sam Richardson and Grant Rohach all wave ‘hello’). Enter: Jacob Park. He makes his reads and releases the ball quicker than any ISU QB in recent memory and uses the scramble as a last resort. With the receiving corps being the deepest and most talented unit on the field, ISU needs to get the ball in their hands to be successful. Lanning was sacked eight times in the first three games alone while Park was sacked 12 times all season. With improved line play and Park’s ability to get the ball to playmakers under pressure, he could be the difference between staying home or going bowling.
Don’t Forget About
Willie Harvey, LB. The redshirt junior linebacker has largely stayed out of the spotlight ever since Joel Lanning made the switch to defense, while some of the younger linebackers have also made some noise this offseason. Meanwhile, Harvey is coming off a season in which he led the team in tackles and forced fumbles as well as finishing second in tackles for loss and sacks. If his teammates improve as they are expected to, Harvey could find himself higher than the Big 12 Honorable Mention he was awarded last year.
Most Underrated Unit
TCU Running Backs. Okay, maybe they aren’t necessarily “underrated”, but after seeing TCU mentioned as a potential win by some Cyclone fans, it’s worth reminding people this unit is no joke. Let’s not forget the backfield ran for 229 yards and 4 touchdowns against Iowa State in a 41-20 win last season—and they return all three of their top rushers and four starting offensive linemen. TCU is ridiculously experienced across the board this season, but with concerns along the defensive front seven for Iowa State, there may be no unit better equipped to attack ISU’s weaknesses than TCU.
Most Potent Player
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB. This may seem like a copout and you guys were probably looking for something more insightful, but it’s just a fact that Mayfield is the scariest player Iowa State will face. In fact, Mayfield’s 328-yard, 4 TD performance probably saved an otherwise stagnant Oklahoma team from an upset last season as they snuck away with a 34-24 win in Jack Trice Stadium. He broke the NCAA quarterback efficiency record last season and with a ridiculously talented receiving corps at his disposal, most teams will be playing catch-up with the Sooners.
Don’t Forget About
Josey Jewell, Iowa LB. Defensive players are often undervalued by opposing teams because there’s only so much one player can do when you’re throwing and running all over the field. Well, an All-American middle linebacker is about as scary as it gets. Iowa is always talented along the defensive front seven and there’s no question ISU will need to establish a rushing attack to have a chance against the Hawkeyes. In arguably the most pivotal game of the year for the Cyclones, Jewell’s presence in both the rush and pass defense could be the difference.
Don’t Get Upset
Sandwiched between arguably the two biggest games of the season, the road contest at Akron has “trap game” written all over it. The Zips aren’t expected to be much better than a middle-of-the-pack MAC team, but it wasn’t long ago that Matt Campbell upset Iowa State in a MAC home game at Toledo. UNI and Kansas have been much talked about must-wins, but Akron has maybe the highest potential for a letdown.
Best Chance to Upset
Texas is the easy answer, but I’m not so sure the Longhorns will be ranked by Week 4 and with so many unknowns around each program, Iowa State could be favored by that point for all we know. However, it’s a late-season road game against West Virginia that catches my eye. The Mountaineers went 10-3 last season and hope to duplicate that success with Florida transfer QB, Will Grier. The Mountaineers will likely be ranked heading into the November 4th matchup, but a back-loaded schedule makes Iowa State a trap game of sorts. Four of the last five games on WVU’s schedule are ranked, Iowa State being the lone exception. Can ISU catch the Mountaineers sleeping between games against Oklahoma State and a road game at Kansas State? It may be the win ISU needs to become bowl eligible.
Worst Case Scenario
Iowa State’s offseason has been flooded with optimism, but there’s one disturbing stat I can’t quite get my mind off of: no player on roster has ever won more than 3 games in a season as a Cyclone. The team is sure to be improved from the abysmal start they had last season, but there’s a not-completely-unrealistic scenario that would continue that disappointing trend:
ISU starts the season with a much-needed win against UNI, but week two isn’t as pretty. Iowa State’s concerns along the defensive front are exposed by the Hawkeyes’ dominant run game as the Hawkeyes run away with another convincing win. Campbell gets the team reenergized against former MAC foe Akron as the team starts the season 2-1. However, the much-anticipated Thursday night matchup against Texas is a letdown as Tom Herman has the Longhorns playing up to their top-25 ranking and Oklahoma makes quick work of the Cyclones the following week. The Cyclones pick up a home win against Kansas to get to 3-3, but a handful of injuries and a disappointing road trip to Texas Tech start a downward spiral going into the toughest part of the schedule. The Cyclones drop three-straight to ranked teams, drop their road contest against Baylor, and are overwhelmed by a surging Kansas State team as the Cyclones finish with six-straight losses.
Worst Case Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big 12)
Best Case Scenario
It’s hard to imagine the Cyclones will return to 3-9 with all the experience the team returns this year. In fact, if the areas of concern meet or exceed expectations, the Cyclones have a team capable of breaking multiple school records and quite possibly becoming the most successful team in school history. Let’s dream a little:
That season-opening UNI game is a sign of good things to come. Iowa State’s air attack is too much for a shaky Hawkeye secondary and a win against Akron has the Cyclones 3-0 with a huge night game against Texas looming. The Cyclones upset the Longhorns in front of a national audience and their 4-0 start is good enough to sneak into the top-25. A road trip to Oklahoma gives ISU its first loss of the season, but back-to-back wins against the Big 12’s worst teams, Kansas and Texas Tech, have the Cyclones bowl eligible at 6-1 before November even starts. TCU is soaring up the rankings and prove to be too much for Iowa State, but a road win against West Virginia keeps the team ranked the next week before dropping one at home against a top-10 Oklahoma State team. The final two weeks are on the road, but they pick up a win against a struggling Baylor team that sets up for a ranked Week 13 matchup against Kansas State where the Cyclones finally break their 9-game losing streak to the Wildcats to head into bowl season with a ton of momentum and a top-15 ranking.
Best Case Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big 12)
As most Cyclone fans have done all offseason, I’ve gone back-and-forth on how I think the Cyclones will finish. On one hand, I watched this team improve a lot over the course of last season and it sounds like the offseason has been night-and-day from what Campbell walked into last year. On the other hand, the Cyclones face another nauseatingly difficult schedule with five preseason ranked teams and just four Big 12 home games. Vegas set the team’s over/under at 5.5 wins, and I wouldn’t put a penny on either one. Regardless, I can’t end this with “I don’t know,” so here’s how I imagine the season going:
Fans get to sarcastically chant “WE’RE BETTER THAN FCS!” after a comfortable win against UNI and double the fun by outlasting the Hawkeyes in a nail-biter in week two thanks to Jacob Park’s arm. The Cyclones take care of Akron before *gasp* Texas comes into town and ruins everybody’s Thursday night for the first loss of the season. They ain’t winning in Oklahoma, either. However, they get back on track and beat Kansas and Texas Tech in back-to-back weeks to get to 5-2. But it wouldn’t be Iowa State football without a little drama. The Cyclones lose the next three games before a big-time matchup with a struggling Baylor team on the road. The Cyclones win a shootout to get bowl eligible before Kansas State hands them a final loss on the road.
My Prediction: 6-6 (3-6 Big 12)
Am I confident about any of that? No. Will it happen that way? Absolutely not. Is 6-6 possible? Yes, and I’m increasingly confident that somehow, someway they will get there. In the meantime, be sure you packed enough beer for the UNI game. Never know, you may need it.