WILLIAMS: Why Iowa State is no longer an afterthought in the Big 12

DALLAS — Four years ago, Matt Campbell walked into his first Big 12 media day at the ripe age of 36 years old, 20 pounds heavier and facing a gargantuan task.

Fix Iowa State football. 

Check that: Establish Iowa State football as anything other than a graveyard for other men in his profession. 

Following its firing of Paul Rhoads after the 2015 season, Iowa State made what prognosticators believed was a nice hire. Campbell, who had gone 35-15 during his five years at the helm at Toledo, was widely believed to be an up and comer in the business. Going from the MAC – a league where his Rockets routinely played for championships – to the Big 12 was a natural progression. 

But as has been the case for literally every Big 12 media day for the last 15 years, Campbell’s Iowa State program was an afterthought – and rightfully so. Without much of anything not-named Allen Lazard heading into that 2016 season (Iowa State went 3-9), the Cyclones were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12, which is exactly what the loyal sons were used to. 

It’s been a common trend. Going back to 2011 – the year the Big 12 moved to 10 teams – here is where Iowa State’s preseason projections have been:

2018: 7th
2017: 9th
2016: 9th
2015: 9th
2014: 9th
2013: 9th
2012: 8th
2011: 9th 

By looking at those numbers, you can see how in a league with Texas, Oklahoma, Art Briles, Gary Paterson and Mike Gundy walking the halls, Iowa State hasn’t exactly been showcased here in Dallas. 

The 2019 preseason meetings were a totally different story.

Iowa State’s head coach was a poised, humble superstar.  

After losing its two most dynamic playmakers on offense early to the NFL Draft, the media picked lowly Iowa State to finish third.

A rising star in his profession, FOX college football analyst Joel Klatt intensely covers the Big 12 and has a pretty good idea. 

“You win and lose guys with the middle of the roster,” Klatt, who used to compete against Iowa State as a quarterback at Colorado, told Cyclone Fanatic. “I think for the very first time, Iowa State has a legitimate middle roster. Matt has done an incredible job of finding the guys who fit his culture and his mentality. Tough-minded, sound and physical. They play quality defense and don’t beat themselves. All of that contributes to the fact that you have a foundation where you can talk about Iowa State is just flat better than half of the league.”

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Even without David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler terrifying defenses, on paper, top to bottom, this is the most complete roster that Campbell has started a season with at Iowa State. Even where starters from last year’s 8-5 Alamo Bowl team were lost, the Cyclones have a legitimate two-deep capable of competing in one of the best leagues in the country.  

Iowa State – who five years ago moved to a 3-4 defense not for strategic purposes but because it didn’t have enough quality linemen to field a 4-3 – boasts the Big 12’s top defensive front seven and for once – a true rarity in Ames – a proven quarterback entering the season. 

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and Iowa State’s talent level is up, but these expectations are lofty because of the two-time defending Big 12 Coach of the Year, Matt Campbell. 

“ADs call me all the time,” Klatt explained. “You know the first name that they bring up every single time? ‘Do you think I can get Matt Campbell?’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, I don’t know, call him.’”

That’s because Campbell has built Iowa State’s program from the inside out in what most experts believe to be a sustainable way. Campbell’s “process” was talked about a lot this week in Dallas, mainly because 40 percent of the Big 12’s coaches heading into the 2019 season are rookies in the league. Three of the four come from lower divisions of the game and are taking over programs with similar challenges to the Iowa State job. 

Texas Tech’s new coach, former Utah State head man Matt Wells, has taken note. 

“From a program standpoint, having played against his Toledo teams, that will be one of the best coached teams in the Big 12,” Wells said. “I’ve also asked some of the outgoing Texas Tech coaches about it along with some of the players. If you ask about the best coached team in the Big 12, the most disciplined team in the Big 12, I promise you that Iowa State and Matt Campbell came up every time. I have a ton of respect for what he has done. My brother coached at Iowa State under Coach Rhoads. That’s another passionate fan base that I have a lot of respect for based off of the time that Luke had there. It’s a tough place to play.”

As it does every year at the Big 12 meetings, Iowa State released its pre-fall camp depth chart on Tuesday morning. There wasn’t a single flashy detail within it. A lack of surprises entering fall camp equals stability, which thanks to the head coach is now the identity of Iowa State football. 

“I talked to a number of coaches and asked them, ‘What exactly do they do?’ They all basically say the same thing. He just gets them to play harder than your guys play,” said FOX analyst Bruce Feldman. “He and that staff are really good evaluators and now, you have belief. There isn’t anything flukey about what they do.”

Let’s hope that Iowa State’s head coach being the belle of the ball in Dallas every July isn’t flukey either.