NO CUPCAKES: ISU’s history of facing top FCS teams continues

AMES — High risk, little reward.

That’s the conventional thinking that routinely frames season-opening matchups between FBS and FCS teams, but the logic behind it’s becoming increasingly muddled.

But what if it’s possible to flip that tired script beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday when Iowa State welcomes South Dakota State to Jack Trice Stadium?

What if facing a high-quality lower division foe can prove more valuable than coasting past an also-ran?

When it comes to “winning in the margins,” each challenge counts — and the more the Cyclones encounter, the better.

“We’re fortunate it starts out game one for us,” ISU coach Matt Campbell said of facing the Jackrabbits, who reached the FCS playoff semifinals last season. “There’s not an opponent on our schedule that you look at and at least a year ago didn’t have tremendous success in a lot of ways. We get tested with that starting on Saturday. When you play a schedule like that — there’s not a lot of grace period. There’s not a lot of opportunities for you to just ease into the college football season.”

As it should be.

In a sense, the Cyclones have come full-circle in their mercurial decade-long journey through mostly top-level FCS foes.

It’s been 10 years since ISU dispatched a then-fledgling FCS South Dakota State team 44-17 to open an otherwise disastrous season that ended with zero Big 12 wins and an unexpected, but now celebrated coaching change.

And just as the Jackrabbits have found their footing among NCAA football’s solid second tier, the Cyclones are confidently regaining theirs for the second time within that time span.

Should be fun. Tough, too. Both unprecedented heights and familiar potential pitfalls will lurk along the 12-game path that begins right after ISU’s players and coaches emerge from the darkened tunnel.

“This is a great team coming in here,” Cyclones quarterback Kyle Kempt said of SDSU.

 The Jackrabbits have now firmly established a winning culture.

ISU’s is a work in progress that began with properly arranging lockers in year one under Campbell, moved to learning to win in year two and, now, hinges on handling, meeting and potentially surpassing mounting expectations in year three and beyond.

So cupcakes are not welcome here. No breathers are desired, nor required. Just bright spotlights — with more showcases to come, as long as no one’s blinded along the way. 

“Shoot, who wouldn’t like a night game at Jack Trice?” senior cornerback D’Andre Payne said of Saturday’s opener. “Just being in the first game of the season — fans, Cyclone Nation being out there. A lot of hype going towards this program right now and I wouldn’t want to be in another place.”

It won’t be easy, this season opener that on the surface offers little reward, but plenty of peril.

The Jackrabbits are rebuilding at some key spots, but retain the services of all-time leading touchdown thrower Taryn Christion, a 6-2 dual-threat play caller that stacks up well against Big 12-caliber quarterbacks.

And ISU has lost three of its past five games against FCS opponents — one to North Dakota State, which went on to win a national title that year, and two to perennial power Northern Iowa.

So nothing’s a given, especially since FCS programs continue to mine rich talent and depth via expert program-building and more relaxed transfer rules. 

“I think FCS has changed a ton, even in the years that I was back at Youngstown (State),” said Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, who succeeded Jim Tressel as the head coach of the Penguins from 2001-09. “A lot of talent — and guys are transferring, there’s a lot more of that going on. So there’s really, really talented folks. (The Jacks) had some guys drafted in early rounds and you just see it. So I think the gaps closing and I don’t think it’s going to change as long as guys are moving on from (FBS) to FCS. It’s really good football. … I don’t think there’s a lot of difference. Not near as much as there used to be.”

So it’s time to bury that long-standing stigma that accompanies closer-than-expected wins over FCS teams or even (gasp!) losses.

Weigh each outcome equally. The only script that counts is the one that changes from week to week — internally, not externally.

“I think the one thing that this has done and our schedule has done, period, it makes your heightened intensity from the time you come back in January until you get ready for this football season, is on high alert,” Campbell said of not only a staunch FCS foe, but the rest of a stacked early-season slate. “You have visual evidence. You have equity in what’s being said, instead of you’re building something up, you’re actually telling truisms and you can show that and there’s videotape evidence. I think to be able to have that schedule, it makes everything else, in terms of your awareness and your intent of what day-to-day is, it better be on the highest level or you’re going to get exposed really fast. I do think those are the positives that come in when you play a schedule like ours where every week you’ve got to bring it and every week you’ve got to be able to rock and roll, especially when you’re talking about week one against an opponent like this.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.