I got to talking to some fellow Cyclone fans here at TGS, reliving our favorite and least favorite memories as Cyclone fans in the past couple decades, because what else are we supposed to do without sports? It wasn’t long into the discussion before something hit me: So much of Iowa State’s football history—even recent history—has been forgotten. We are quick to recall highlights of Seneca Wallace, the Tornado Game in 2005, the Oklahoma State upset in 2011, and the rise of the program under Matt Campbell, but many of the less inspiring or not-so-great memories are completely ignored. The Dan McCarney era seems so far removed from Paul Rhoads—who was hired just three years after McCarney left—that we almost treat them as separate entities.
Well, folks, strap in because I decided to bring them all together and rank every Iowa State football team since the year 2000. I’ve broken it into two parts: 20 through 11, and the top 10.
Today, you get 20 through 11 and I’ll be honest, the bottom of this list is not pretty. But the good news is the list only gets better as you read, and even among some of the bad memories are fun ones. And before you @ me on Twitter, remember that this list is completely accurate and cannot be criticized. Thank you.
20. The 2003 Iowa State Cyclones (2-10, 0-8 Big 12)
Notable wins: None
Notable losses: vs. #1 Oklahoma (53-7), at #14 Nebraska (28-0), vs. Kansas State (45-0)
Austin Flynn, Waye Terry, Cris Love. Iowa State played those three quarterbacks in 2003, and none of them completed more than 46.7% of their passes. Stevie Hicks led the team in rushing as a freshman with just 471 yards. The team would end the season with the 2nd worst offense in the entire country at just 14.4 points per game, and the defense allowed a putrid 36.4 points. Iowa State’s best win ended up being a 17-10 win against FCS school Northern Iowa, followed by a win against an Ohio team that also finished 2-10, and then they lost 10 straight to end the season. Even with Iowa State’s rich tradition of subpar football, this will go down as one of the worst Cyclone teams to take the field.
19. The 2014 Iowa State Cyclones (2-10, 0-9 Big 12)
Notable wins: at Iowa (20-17), vs. Toledo (37-30)
Notable losses: vs. (FCS) NDSU (34-14), vs. #19 Oklahoma (59-14), at #4 TCU (55-3)
Okay, starting the season off with a loss to an FCS team is never a good sign, but it *was* a really good North Dakota State team. The Cyclones then played a really close game against #20 Kansas State before beating Iowa on a last-second field goal. Not bad! Well, then the wheels came off. The team would go on to lose their remaining Big 12 games by an average of 21.8 points. Oklahoma racked up 700+ yards on ISU’s depleted defense, and TCU capped the season by taking a knee in the red zone to give the ball back to Iowa State at the end of their 55-3 drubbing, just to show some mercy. The big positive of the season? Matt Campbell got his first taste of Ames, which he never forgot and is part of the reason he’s here today.
18. The 2008 Iowa State Cyclones (2-10, 0-8 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Kent State (48-28)
Notable losses: at Iowa (17-5), at UNLV (34-31 OT), vs. #16 Kansas (35-33)
Many fans have blocked out the Gene Chizik era from their memories, and his final season sitting at 18th on this list of 20 teams helps explain why. But I’ll actually give some credit here—this team wasn’t as terrible as some remember. Yes, they lost 10 in a row and yes, he resigned after this season, but they were also dangerously close to a 5-0 start, if not for consecutive fourth quarter comebacks by Iowa, UNLV, and Kansas. The team was young—which paid dividends for successor Paul Rhoads—but the defense was horrid, and Chizik got a ticket out of Ames before he could be fired.
17. The 2006 Iowa State Cyclones (4-8, 1-7 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Toledo (45-43 3OT), vs. UNI (28-27), vs. Mizzou (21-16)
Notable losses: at #16 Iowa (27-17), vs. Kansas (41-10)
Dan McCarney’s final season wasn’t exactly his best one, especially considering how close the Cyclones were to being great the previous season. This team was stripped of the talent that made the previous season so interesting and had to rely on last-second heroics in three of their four wins—none of them against particularly good teams. Losses to Colorado and Kansas solidified Iowa State’s spot in the cellar of the Big 12 in 2006, the only saving grace being a thrilling home win against Missouri to send McCarney off with a win.
16. The 2007 Iowa State Cyclones (3-9, 2-6 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Iowa (15-13), vs. Kansas State (31-20), vs. Colorado (31-28)
Notable losses: vs. Kent State (23-14), vs. UNI (24-13), vs. #23 Texas (56-3)
As you can see, the 2006-08 era was not a bright one, although 2007 offered more hope than the bookends did. Chizik had a rough start with losses to Kent State and FCS school Northern Iowa to start the season, but some of the wackiest wins in recent memory—a 15-13 win against Iowa that featured five made field goals by Bret Culbertson and a 31-28 win against Colorado where two of Colorado’s 50-yard field goals were called off in the final seconds—and an upset of Kansas State made for a semi-exciting and optimistic outlook for the rest of the Chizik era. We know how that went.
15. The 2013 Iowa State Cyclones (3-9, 2-7 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Kansas (34-0), at West Virginia (52-44 3OT)
Notable losses: vs. UNI (28-20), vs. Texas (31-30), at #12 Baylor (71-7), at Kansas State (41-7)
What a ride 2013 was. The year started with Rhoads’ first loss to UNI (a sign of things to come), and things quickly escalated in a controversial loss to Texas, where Rhoads blew up in the postgame press conference and got himself a public reprimand from the Big 12. Just weeks later, this team would bring home the worst loss in school history with a 71-7 beatdown from Baylor before finishing the season on a positive with the “Ice Bowl” blowout win against Kansas, followed by one of the biggest second half (plus triple-OT) comebacks in school history against West Virginia. It wasn’t a good team, but the trajectory at the end of the season kept hope alive that things might improve after Rhoads’ worst season to date.
14. The 2015 Iowa State Cyclones (3-9, 2-7 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Texas (24-0)
Notable losses: at Toledo (30-23 2OT), at Kansas State (38-35)
Every Cyclone fan has one lasting memory from the 2015 football team: The Kansas State debacle. The decision to run the ball instead of kneeling with a 7-point lead with less than two minutes remaining effectively ended Paul Rhoads’ ISU coaching career as the team fumbled away the lead and then the game. The rest of the season was pretty unremarkable, with no other loss particularly embarrassing or any win particularly exciting, despite Rhoads’ plea that ISU shouldn’t beat Texas (who finished 5-7) after their 24-0 win. Perhaps the biggest positive from this season was Matt Campbell’s win against the team he’d be hired to coach just months later.
13. The 2016 Iowa State Cyclones (3-9, 2-7 Big 12)
Notable wins: at Kansas (31-24), vs. Texas Tech (66-10)
Notable losses: vs. UNI (25-20), at #16 Iowa (42-3), vs. #13 Baylor (45-42)
Year 1 of the Matt Campbell experiment didn’t get off to the best start. In fact, many people (including myself) wondered if Jamie Pollard had made a huge mistake after embarrassing losses to UNI and Iowa to start the season, but a 44-10 win against San Jose State was the first sign of life for the program that had won just eight games over the past three seasons. Fast forward to the next week, when the Cyclones took #13 Baylor down to the wire before losing on a last-second field goal, and people really started to believe. Even during a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season, the Cyclones seemed to be competing in every game. That all came to a head with consecutive wins against Kansas and Texas Tech, where the Cyclones put up 66 points on the Patrick Mahomes-led Red Raiders and paved the way for Campbell’s turnaround.
12. The 2010 Iowa State Cyclones (5-7, 3-5 Big 12)
Notable wins: vs. Texas Tech (52-38), at #22 Texas (28-21)
Notable losses: vs. #10 Utah (68-27), at #6 Oklahoma (52-0), vs. #9 Nebraska (31-30)
I can still see the wide-open receiver in the endzone as Iowa State nearly pulled off the game-winning 2-point conversion to beat a top-10 Nebraska team. A win would have put ISU on the national radar, having just beaten #22 Texas a couple weeks before, and propelled the Cyclones to back-to-back bowl bids in Rhoads’ second year as coach. Instead, the pass attempt fell horrifically short, and the Cyclones lost their last three games to miss a bowl game. While much of the season is remembered for the stalwart linebacking duo of Jake Knott and AJ Klein, the team struggled to overcome their offensive inconsistencies and a tough schedule kept them in the bottom half of Cyclone teams on this list.
11. The 2009 Iowa State Cyclones (7-6, 3-5 Big 12)
Notable wins: at Nebraska (9-7), vs. Minnesota (14-13, Insight Bowl)
Notable losses: at Kansas State (24-23), at #16 Kansas (41-36)
As far as debut seasons go, Paul Rhoads kind of knocked his out of the park, energizing the fanbase in ways that are still being felt today. Fueled by a gritty defense led by star linebacker Jesse Smith, the team didn’t have many shootouts or truly exciting games, save for the eight-turnover clown show that gave ISU its first win at Nebraska in decades. The team was actually a few extra points away from a much different season, as the Cyclones would miss a combined three PATs in back-to-back games—against Kansas State and Kansas—that would change the outcome (or strategy) in both close losses. The bowl win was a milestone for the oft-struggling program and helped Rhoads pull the Cyclones out of the cellar of the Big 12, but realistically the schedule was favorable and the team doesn’t quite crack the top 10 on this list.
Check The Tailgate Society website soon to read about the top 10 Cyclone teams since 2000.