Williams: The heat is on

Chris Williams

Publisher

Can you feel that, Fanatics? 

The lump in the back of your throat; the deep breaths that you are having a hard time taking; the excruciating anxiety that is dominating your brain as game day approaches?

What you’re currently experiencing is the vast amount of pressure that is being placed on your favorite team.

Think it’s bad as a fan? Just imagine how Paul Rhoads feels right about now.

After last year’s 3-9 finish, a case can be made that Saturday’s season opener against North Dakota State is the most pressured-packed game in modern day Iowa State football. 

For real.

Every Iowa State fan I talk to these days is as nervous as a third-grader in the principal’s office (not that I would know).

Earlier this week, Rhoads himself noted how last season’s opening game loss to Northern Iowa set a negative tone for the season before the calendar hit Labor Day. It is a classic big school vs. FCS affair. Win, and you are supposed to. 

But what if Iowa State were to lose to the three-time defending FCS champs on Saturday? Up next is nationally-ranked Kansas State, a program that Rhoads has never beaten. Then, a road trip to Iowa is on the docket. After a week off to regroup, (not your father’s) Baylor is coming to town.

(Gulp)

You will know

“How are the Cyclones going to be this year?”

Every summer, I get asked that question more times than Brent Blum mentions “Hollywood” Higgins during a night out at the bar.   

This year, fans won’t have to wait too long to find out the answer to this question, in my opinion. 

“Come 4 p.m. on Aug. 30, you will know,” I’ve been telling folks.

The way I see it, all of the questions leading up to this football game surround Iowa State.

I know that North Dakota State has 12 starters to replace. I know that their head coach and eight additional assistants are gone from the team that has won three straight titles. I know that this is a road trip for an FCS program inside of a Big 12 stadium.

Trust me, I know. 

I also know that North Dakota State will play an assignment-sound football game on Saturday. There is no doubt in my mind about that, actually. This is a program that has defeated four FBS schools in a row. That’s no fluke.

NDSU’s last loss to a power conference was in 2009 to you know — Iowa State — in Paul Rhoads’ first game as the Cyclone head coach.

I just have the feeling that after the season’s opening game, you will know. If the offense moves the football and is clearly more organized under Mark Mangino than the first five years of the Rhoads era, you will know.

The offense is really what it all will come down to.

I fully realize that Iowa State’s defense is one giant ball of questions heading into 2014. When it comes to stopping the run and defending highly potent Big 12 offenses, it is going to be a long year no matter how you slice it up so prepare yourselves now. But the offense has to be exponentially better than it has been in the past five years if Iowa State will even sniff a bowl game in 2014. A moderately improved offense simply won’t cut the mustard. 

How bad has Iowa State’s offense been during the Rhoads era? According to Dave Bartoo’s College Football Matrix Vegas Expectations publication, Iowa State has been the third worst team in America over the last five years when it comes to hitting the “over” (in Vegas). In 60 games, Iowa State has only hit the "over" 22 times and my guess is that a lot of those had to do with other Big 12 teams (like Baylor last year) running it up. 

Point: The offense has to take some pressure off of a ripe defense. Boom. That is the key to the season.

With a new system in place, to expect perfection out of the offense on Saturday would be unfair. But there absolutely has to be significant growth.

You will know.

Iowa State will win if…

 …It can consistently run the football. North Dakota State’s big question on defense is up front. It’s back seven on that side of the ball is actually a pretty impressive group. The last thing Iowa State can afford to do is become one-dimensional early on. And let’s face it; after last season, Sam Richardson’s in-game confidence can’t be very high right now. Iowa State’s starting quarterback needs to feel some positive vibes early. That won’t happen if the Cyclones can’t run the football.

North Dakota State will win if…

…Iowa State comes out as flat as it did in the 2013 season opener and they can jump on the Cyclones early. The Bison don’t miss around. This isn’t a program that Iowa State can afford to spot an early lead to. North Dakota State has won 24 games in a row. Twenty-four! Sure, there are new starters in the lineup but these same guys have been on the bench watching their teammates win national titles. Some names might be different in Fargo this season, but the aura around the program is not. North Dakota State fully expects to beat Iowa State on Saturday afternoon, which makes getting off to a strong Cyclone start even more imperative.

Prediction

If you look at the 2013 UNI game (and the entire season for that matter), you really couldn’t have written a more negative script as to how things were going to go down. As I mentioned above, Iowa State couldn’t have been more flat in last season’s opener. A brutal training camp regimen was likely to blame for that and Paul Rhoads has taken numerous steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again. 

For the most part, every starter is back on offense for the Cyclones. Sam Richardson should be a better quarterback than he was a year ago. Sure, you worry about the defense (and rightfully so), but North Dakota State’s power rushing attack is pretty cut and dry. While I worry about NDSU bleeding the clock and controlling tempo, I also fully expect Wally Burnham to have an awesome game plan put together.

This will be a good football game and I don’t expect Iowa State fans to be relaxed in the fourth quarter, but FCS teams shouldn’t beat Big 12 teams in Big 12 stadiums. Ever. North Dakota State did this last season in Manhattan. UNI did it in Ames. The chances of Iowa State losing two years in a row to an FCS program seem slim to me. Add to that, with all of the change, can North Dakota State’s positive mojo vs. FBS teams really keep up? North Dakota State’s last loss to an FBS team was to Iowa State. I’m predicting that its next one will be to the Cyclones too. 

Final score

Iowa State 27, North Dakota State 20 

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