Before you start reading about the top-10 Iowa State teams from the past two decades, take a minute to read about teams 20 through 11 on this list to help add some context (and I already did the work for you, so it’d be kind of rude not to).
Once you’ve finished catching up, continue reading about the top-10 Iowa State football teams since 2000:
10. The 2012 Iowa State Cyclones (6-7, 3-6 Big 12)
Notable wins: at Iowa (9-6), at #15 TCU (37-23), at Kansas (53-23)
Notable losses: vs. #6 Kansas State (27-21), vs. West Virginia (31-24), vs. Tulsa (31-17, Liberty Bowl)
With one of the best defenses of the Rhoads era, the Cyclones opened the season by reeling off three-straight wins against Tulsa, at Iowa, and home against Western Illinois. A win against a top-15 TCU team solidified Iowa State’s status as the pesky Big 12 team that no ranked team wanted to face, and their 4-1 start had fans legitimately optimistic about the trajectory of the program. But the team would sputter, finishing the season 2-6 with a bowl loss to Tulsa—a team they beat in the home opener—in what was likely the beginning of the end of the Rhoads era. While the season ended less hopefully than it began, the Cyclones competed in practically every game—something that hasn’t been all that common in the program’s history.
9. The 2011 Iowa State Cyclones (6-7, 3-6 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Iowa (44-41 3OT), at #19 Texas Tech (41-7), at #2 Oklahoma State (37-31 2OT)
Notable losses: at #16 Kansas State (30-23), vs. Rutgers (27-13, Pinstripe Bowl)
If I could vote for one football season to be made into a documentary, it would be hard to say no to the 2011 season. The rise of Steele Jantz in fourth quarter comebacks against UNI, Iowa, and UConn (where Cy the Mascot was pushed down stairs and broke his arm); the demolishing of #19 Texas Tech on the road; the iconic BCS-busting upset of #2 Oklahoma State; and the three-game losing streak that came to a head in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers. The Cyclones played a ridiculous seven games against top-25 teams in 2011 and still managed bowl eligibility. Give me the inside look on this season because with guys like Jantz, Rhoads, Jeff Woody, etc., it would be impossible not to be entertaining.
8. The 2001 Iowa State Cyclones (7-5, 4-4 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Baylor (41-0), vs. Iowa (17-14)
Notable losses: at Texas A&M (24-21), vs. Kansas State (42-3), vs. Alabama (14-13, Independence Bowl)
Coming off the winningest season in school history, the 2001 team had the tall task of replacing Sage Rosenfels (drafted by the Washington Redskins) as well as a handful of other NFL talent. McCarney’s answer was Seneca Wallace, a community college transfer from California, who led the team to seven regular-season wins, including a rescheduled CyHawk game that was postponed due to the events of September 11, 2001.
But the biggest controversy came in the final seconds of the season, as Iowa State’s Tony Yelk sailed a field goal over the upright that would have sealed a bowl win against Alabama, but was called wide right (and would become a theme over the next few years that contributed to the namesake of the SB Nation blog, Wide Right and Natty Lite).
7. The 2004 Iowa State Cyclones (7-5, 4-4 Big 12)
Notable wins: at Baylor (26-25), vs. Nebraska (34-27), vs. Miami (OH) (17-13, Independence Bowl)
Notable losses: at #16 Iowa (17-10), vs. Missouri (17-14 OT)
Remember the 2003 football season? The one with one of the worst offenses in the country, a terrible defense, and last on this list of Cyclone football teams from the past two decades? Well, a 2-4 start to the 2004 season looked like another disappointing year was in store before Iowa State ripped off four consecutive Big 12 wins to break their 13-game conference losing streak. Although they would technically finish the season as Big 12 North co-champions with Colorado, they were a missed 24-yard field goal (wide right) against Missouri from claiming the outright title and playing in the Big 12 Championship Game. It may not have been the best team under McCarney, but it was one of the most beloved, ending in a bowl win and setting the stage for a big 2005 season.
6. The 2019 Iowa State Cyclones (7-6, 5-4 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (72-20), vs. #22 Texas (23-21)
Notable losses: vs. #19 Iowa (19-18), at Baylor (23-21), at #9 Oklahoma (42-41), vs. #14 Notre Dame (33-9, Camping World Bowl)
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Cyclones had plenty of the latter and almost none of the former in 2019. Analytically, this team was the best of the 2000s—perhaps no Cyclone team has been more efficient on both sides of the ball than this team was. But their inability to finish in close games and the steep nosedive they took at the end of the season turned a potentially great season into a largely disappointing one. Regardless, this was one of the best offensive teams in school history, playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation (#5 via Sagarin), and they still ended the regular season with seven wins. In a head-to-head competition, the 2019 team would likely take any of these teams to the wire.
5. The 2000 #25 Iowa State Cyclones (9-3, 5-3 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Pitt (37-29, Insight Bowl)
Notable losses: vs. #2 Nebraska (49-27), vs. Texas A&M (30-7), at #19 Kansas State (56-10)
No, I’m not trolling you. Yes, this is the only team on this list to reach nine wins and be ranked in the final AP Poll of the season, but I’m not ranking these teams by just wins or just talent, but by their body of work. When six of your wins come against teams that finished with four wins or less and the three best opponents you face blow you out, the accomplishments don’t shine as bright. Heck, the only notable win they had was against a 7-5 Pitt team.
But I don’t want to downplay the importance of this team: They were not only the first Cyclone team to win a bowl game, but they vaulted Dan McCarney’s previously struggling program onto the national stage to set up a string of success that would define his legacy. The team was full of future NFLers like Sage Rosenfels, Ennis Hayward, J.J. Moses, and Mike Banks, and without this team’s success, it’s likely that this list would look drastically different.
4. The 2002 Iowa State Cyclones (7-7, 4-4 Big 12)
Notable wins: at Iowa (36-31), vs. #20 Nebraska (36-14), vs. Texas Tech (31-17)
Notable losses: vs. #3 Florida State (38-31), at #2 Oklahoma (49-3), at #12 Kansas State (58-7), at #18 Boise State (34-16, Humanitarian Bowl)
Seneca was in. The replay proves it now, but at the time, there’s nothing Iowa State could do when Wallace’s touchdown on the final play against #3 Florida State was called short of the goal line for the potential tie. Just weeks later, he’d lead the Cyclones to a win over an Iowa team who would finish 8th in the nation. He’d go on to lead the Cyclones to a win in a ranked matchup with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He’d also lead the Cyclones in a primetime win against Texas Tech, where the iconic “The Run” came to be. By mid-October, the Cyclones were 6-1 and ranked 9th in the nation, setting up to be the best season in school history.
Until it wasn’t.
Wallace and the Cyclones would struggle the back half of the season as the Cyclones’ schedule turned into a murderer’s row, playing five ranked teams on the road in their final seven games. While the 2002 season was a tale of two halves, the team’s eight weeks in the AP Poll provided some of the most memorable games and plays in Cyclone history.
3. The 2018 Iowa State Cyclones (8-5, 6-3 Big 12)
Notable wins: at #25 Oklahoma State (48-42), vs. #6 West Virginia (30-14), vs. Kansas State (42-38)
Notable losses: at Iowa (13-3), at TCU (17-13), at #13 Texas (24-10), vs. #12 Washington State (28-26, Alamo Bowl)
Brock Purdy may have been the difference between the 2018 team being one of the best Cyclone teams to ever play or being a complete disaster. After the home opener was cancelled due to weather, the Cyclones got off to a 1-3 start with starting QB Kyle Kempt being lost to injury. Enter: Brock Purdy. He led the team to back-to-back ranked wins and then led the team to its first win against Kansas State in more than a decade in the biggest fourth quarter comeback in school history. The team would finish the season 7-2, but trailed off a bit at the end, getting a scare from non-scholarship Drake and losing a heartbreaker in the Alamo Bowl to #14 Washington State. If not for the rough start and shaky end, the 2018 team could have easily found themselves atop this list.
2. The 2005 Iowa State Cyclones (7-5, 4-4 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. #8 Iowa (23-3), at Texas A&M (42-14), vs. #22 Colorado (30-16)
Notable losses: at Nebraska (27-20 2OT), at Missouri (27-24 OT), at Kansas (24-21 OT), vs. #14 TCU (27-24, Houston Bowl)
If the 2019 Iowa State team had bad luck, then the 2005 team’s luck was apocalyptic. Three overtime losses (including a missed field goal that sailed wide right), a game stopped due to a tornado touching down in Ames, and a bowl matchup against one of the hottest teams in the nation. While the 7-5 record won’t turn many heads, the path to get there, including the OT loss to Kansas in the season finale that kept them out of the Big 12 championship game, was certainly unforgettable. The defensive roster was jam-packed with talent and the Bret Meyer to Todd Blythe connection was one of the best in the Big 12. While the 2005 team is largely remembered for missed opportunities, there’s no denying they were one of the best we saw take the field in the past two decades.
1. The 2017 Iowa State Cyclones (8-5, 5-4 Big 12)
Notable wins: at #3 Oklahoma (38-31), vs. #4 TCU (14-7), at #19 Memphis (21-20, Liberty Bowl)
Notable losses: vs. Iowa (44-41 OT), vs. #12 Oklahoma State (49-42), at Kansas State (20-19)
Cyclone fans will never forget October of 2017. For the first time in seemingly forever, the Cyclones were making national headlines for more than just a week or two during the season, peaking at #14 in the College Football Playoff Poll in early November. They ended the season with five losses by a total of just 25 points and a bowl win on the road against one of the best offenses in the nation. And this team wasn’t perfect—they lacked true offensive firepower and games like Iowa (OT loss), #12 Oklahoma State (controversial interception that could have been ruled a touchdown), and Kansas State (the picked-up flag debacle) prevented this team from reaching its full potential. But no other Cyclone team this side of the millennium consistently performed at the level the 2017 squad did, and with three ranked wins and some of the most prolonged national respect, they have full control of the #1 spot on this list.