Nov 24, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell watches his team against the Kansas State Wildcats at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Intro by Jared Stansbury
We currently sit fewer than 70 days away from the most highly anticipated Iowa State football season in the program’s history. For the first time in recent memory, the Cyclones will enter as a near consensus top-25 team with two years of magical memories in the rearview mirror.
This could be the complete, national-scale, “We have arrived and there’s nothing you can do about it, college football,” season. It only took until the 150th season of beautiful fall Saturday afternoons, but, hey, we’re not going to complain too much.
The Cyclones return a quarterback who blew us away from his first pump fake on a dreary day in Stillwater last October. All five of the team’s offensive linemen return with serious experience after taking lumps for the last, I don’t know, decade or so. The skill positions have some questions but have you seen how Matt Campbell and his staff have recruited the last several years?
The cherry on top is a defense that has grown to be feared across the land since Jon Heacock and his crew switched to a three-man front for a Thursday night date with Texas in 2017. One of the best pass rushers in program history will be back and so will most of his running-mates, including another guy expected to be a shoo-in for first-team All-Big 12.
A once young linebacking corp is now stocked full with talent and led by one of the program’s original breakout stars and a sophomore, who burst onto the scene with a 10 tackle performance in Kinnick Stadium last season. The secondary is green on the edges, but a front seven that scary should make their job all the easier.
All of this still leaves the question in the back of everyone’s mind, because, come on it is Iowa State football after all, is all this hype justified?
I am likely mistaken, but I do not remember a season in which media expectations were so lofty for the Iowa State Cyclone football program. History creates perception and recency influences prediction. Iowa State’s history suggests there is a reason to cast an eye of doubt towards these expectations and it’s recency suggests there could be upside even with high expectations.
My immediate reaction based on my analysis of the team for the 2019 season was — whoa horsey, we sure about this? That reaction, in part, is based on serious questions I have about personnel development and scheme improvement. The other part is simply a question about whether this team and program are ready to have a target on its back.
Occasionally, predictions are leaps of faith. Occasionally, predictions are shrouded in negative perception or overt optimism. I try to avoid those when asked to predict play and outcomes, but it is difficult to do without reducing the analytical framework to a mathematical formula.
So, I was compelled to try to answer the question – is there a justifiable basis for the optimism surrounding the Iowa State program.
My conclusion: Yes, there is.
Stability v. Chaos
Thinking through the 2017 season, the first eight-win campaign for the Cyclones in the Campbell era, the chaotic nature of the season was apparent and appreciated.
*** Starting quarterback meltdown and over-achieving play from back-up.
*** Former quarterback starts at middle linebacker.
*** In-season defensive overhaul meets with great success.
*** Improbable, history busting upset.
*** Bowl game is a true road game.
A huge amount of chaos was not only managed but completely overcome. The result was a record that outpaced the development curve of the roster and the program as a whole. Each of those points of chaos could have resulted in the season being a much more modest developmental step.
Jump to 2018 where summer predictions were more in line with the apparent true development of the program. But, there was optimism based on better than expected young talent and true development of star talent. Quarterback appeared to be stable. The predictions of a high lower half finish were in-line, but it was probable that Iowa State could rise back to an eight-win threshold.
Push start on the chaos meter:
*** QB1 injury and poor performance, ascent and descent of QB2, QB3 is magic.
*** The first game starts, then ends abruptly ahead of the most important game of the season. It is difficult to describe the negative effect inside the locker room of a false start, but suffice it to say that it throws off all schedules, disrupts rhythm, crimps evaluation, and infuses doubt and guessing into upcoming game planning.
*** A 1-3 start is likely based on the schedule and the first two entries above.
*** The star ground gainer and core of the offense misses a full game and another half game.
Again, the team overcomes the chaos that would derail many a system to right itself, achieve a third-place finish in the conference, and achieve a bowl berth at a higher level than achieved in the past. Iowa State exceeded expectations and perception in spite of truly overwhelming odds.
Now, in the present, what is different for Iowa State’s prospects is that there is a high degree of program stability for the first time in the Campbell era and for the first time in the last six to eight years. Stability is represented by returning starters, projected depth, coaching track record, and some degree of program success (for instance, all the same elements with a one to a three-win team may not elicit an upward projection).
Iowa State won eight games in the midst of chaos — twice — and now a good QB1 returns, the offensive line returns, the defense returns largely intact, the specialists return, and the depth projects to a correlated level of performance based on perceived talent evaluations and time in the program.
It is entirely reasonable to project that ISU will maintain its position in the conference and its national reputation that was well-earned over the last two seasons.
If your quarterback is good, then high expectations will follow. A good start is not always followed up by progression in the second year of performance, but if there is a talent base revealed, the largest increase in production often occurs in the second year. Thereafter, the level is maintained or increased slightly in the collegiate development curve.
It is reasonable to expect the same, or an uptick in Brock Purdy’s performance in year two. His understanding of the offense, a few mechanical adjustments, a greater leadership role, and an increased ability to read progressions both pre- and post-snap should be expected. If that occurs, and indications are that it is in progress, then Iowa State should increase its offensive efficiency.
The most important part of a perceived efficiency gain is that it will manifest earlier in the season. Stilted quarterback play leading to a change regressed both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the Cyclones. Of course, each of those seasons started with perceived quarterback stability as well (danger Will Robinson), but, we may be dealing with a different animal here.
Brock Purdy won seven games and lost two. Both of those losses were to top 15 teams nationally on large stages. That projects to continuing success against the less than top teams and the possibility of getting over the hump against at least one of the three large stages that will present in 2019 (Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas).
Quarterback stability and talent justifies a high projection.
Big Games, Margins, and Momentum
Iowa State’s largest margin of defeat over its last 26 games is 14 to Texas last year. Oklahoma and Iowa own 10 point wins over them during that stretch, as does Texas. Those are less than decisive margins of victory with one exception. To be fair, Iowa State does not win by large margins often either, but they have remained within striking distance of each of its opponents each of the last two years.
However, each of those games could have been classified as “big” games with season-making implications. Iowa State has not developed to the point that projections can be made of wins in those “big” games — but they cannot be dismissed as losses either. Herein lies the greatest challenge to the program — can they ascend above the ceiling and win a “big” game.
Iowa State finished 2-2 in 2018, but the two wins were bounce-back wins after a disappointing “big” game loss. The bounce-back and comeback against Kansas State was a telling game and a great basis for projecting continued success. Iowa State was able to rally and maintain a winning effort in light of an emotional loss then were able to play a solid bowl game that remained winnable until its close. Improving teams show this type of resilience, a point that is not lost on prognosticators.
Big game performance, small margins of defeat, and momentum provide a justification for high-level projections.
So, how many wins are being projected? Eight or nine with a 10 win ceiling. The floor is likely six and bowl eligibility should injuries or chaos ensue.
Returning talent (regardless of the offensive line play, the team still won eight games twice with subpar offensive lines), a challenging but not insurmountable schedule, solid projections for depth players (by the way, last season, ISU lost a 1,000 yard receiver from 2017 and kept stride), increased stability, and solid performances in “big” games form the basis for the loftier than usual projections at Iowa State. These are all justified and can be relied upon in forming a fan’s expectation level for 2019.
The projections for the Team-out-West (Nebraska) should bolster confidence. Nebraska won four games (after a poor start due in no small part to a first game cancellation from the same storm) in their last six. They have a hot coach with a proven turn around record and a young quarterback with major upside. They are ranked in the same tier as Iowa State after a single year of descending play. That projection is far more speculative than picking Iowa State to finish third in the conference and perhaps challenge for a conference title.
So, drink the fruit flavored drink of your choice with gusto and without fear. This program has achieved against the odds for the last two years, they are due for a stable year and are a dangerous club to play under those circumstances.