Oct 27, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; The Iowa State Cyclones celebrate with Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Greg Eisworth (12) after his interception against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Red Raiders 40 to 31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
In November 2014, Iowa State went down to Kansas and was absolutely ambushed by the Jayhawks, losing 34-14 in a game that wasn’t even that close. It was Kansas’ second Big 12 win in four years and a low point for an already reeling Cyclone Football program. The Cyclones would finish 2014 dead last and winless in Big 12 play. Iowa State’s hope at the time rested in new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino and not much else.
Four years later, Iowa State heads back down to Kansas on a three-game conference winning streak and enters November with a legitimate chance to play for a Big 12 Championship. Every once in a while, Cyclone Nation should pinch itself with just how far the program has come.
I grew up going to games with my dad and brothers in the early 1990s when you could roll up to the stadium an hour before kick and park wherever you wanted, play complete 11-on-11 tackle football games on the hillsides and sit in a variety of places just to get an extra row or two to yourself. You always held out hope Iowa State may shock someone and that did happen once in 1992 against Nebraska, but most often the games on the hillsides were way more competitive than the one on the actual playing field.
Iowa State didn’t beat a ranked opponent from a win over K-State in 1993 to a win over Nebraska in 2002.
Even the historic 2000 team that won a school-record nine games and Iowa State’s first bowl game was humbled by ranked foes, Nebraska and K-State, losing by an average of 35 points. Iowa State had a spot at the dance but watched from afar.
Still, the growth under Dan McCarney should never be ignored, no doubt about it. He laid a foundation and made Iowa State relevant for the first time of my life.
Seneca Wallace was a transcendent talent and helped carry Iowa State to its first ever top 10 ranking in 2002. But the house of cards came crashing down in late October and the Cyclones were not a serious threat to compete for a conference championship come November, highlighted by a 58-7 loss to K-State. That team finished 4-4 in conference play.
A winless season in Big 12 play followed in 2003.
The Cyclones made runs at the Big 12 North in 2004 and 2005 but the kicking game and inability to close out games prevented them from getting the chance to represent the North in a Championship game. Both years, the North was a mere mercenary and mincemeat for Oklahoma and Texas. The best three teams in the conference resided in the South and although a North trophy would have been nice, nobody really took that side of the conference seriously. Iowa State finished 4-4 in the Big 12 both years.
From 2006-2016, Iowa State had a losing record in Big 12 play every single year. The Cyclones had periods of brilliance always overshadowed by stretches of the same ol’ stuff. Seemingly any “get over the hump” game, the wheels came off.
The conference went to ten teams in 2011 and up until last season, the Cyclones never finished higher than eighth and never were a threat to get even near the upper half of the conference.
Long story short: Iowa State didn’t have a winning record in conference play from 2001-2016.
For all the exciting times, upsets and occasional blips on the national radar, Iowa State was far from a contender to frighten the upper tier of the conference.
That inglorious streak ended last season. Iowa State finished 5-4 and placed in a four-way tie for fourth. The Cyclones were a few picked up flags from tying for third and were in the Big 12 Championship conversation when the calendar turned to November.
Here we are in November and the Cyclones are players in the Big 12 once again. Iowa State enters the month 3-2 in conference play, tied for fourth and trending up. The Cyclones face the very real possibility of finishing with a winning record in conference play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1977-1978.
I always dreamed of Iowa State playing meaningful football games in November and it’s happening for the second year in a row. The stakes are as high as they’ve been in 40 years. This isn’t just to represent the North in a predetermined outcome against Texas or Oklahoma; this is different. And unlike last season, this year was expected, which only adds to the accomplishment.
If Iowa State can hold serve against Kansas and Baylor the next two weeks, it sets up a monster game at Texas, the likes of which Iowa State hasn’t seen in a long time.
For the first time in my Cyclone life, the stage no longer feels too big for Iowa State. Instead, it feels like Iowa State belongs on the stage.
The Cyclones are good, bring on November.