Can you smell it?
Yes, the pungent odor of sweat drenched socks and 125 dudes in a locker room. But also, the sweet kiss of a closely shorn lawn near a maturing corn field. And…the distant sound of a whistle and a grown man yelling at kids to run faster across his lawn.
It is time to strap it up for fall camp and to dive in to a final piece of rank speculation prior to actual analysis, film clips, and complete immersion in to all things football. It is time to stroll through the schedule and take a quick look at my thoughts regarding each game.
I believe this season is going to be fascinating in the Big 12. While the old guard, Texas and Oklahoma, will remain the teams to beat (yes, I know Texas has been a middling program for a decade, but they are a big dog like it or not), the featured undercard participants revolve around the Iowa State Cyclones.
The schedule itself leans road heavy in conference, but favors Iowa State with three non-conference home games. Two bye weeks are unusual. The first prior to the less significant in-state game and the second leading in to perhaps the penultimate point of the season, at Oklahoma and home against Texas. That may seem like a small point, but I think those bye weeks are well placed and will have an impact on the on-field performance.
Let the speculation begin…
August 31 – v. Northern Iowa
UNI will be breaking in a new quarterback and will be making some key defensive replacements, however, you always get the same thing from them. A hyped up team, disciplined assignment football, a defensive wrinkle against read option and RPO’s, tough, and will run the ball better than expected.
Iowa State is much better from a talent perspective. Can they also catch up from a team discipline and peak performance perspective? Iowa State cannot start slow offensively. Alpha position must be established early in order for Iowa State to dominate this game as they need to. Yes, need to.
This game is in the fourth position in my top four key games of the season. Iowa State has started slowly and tinkered a bit in the first four games in each season under Matt Campbell. This season should be different. The roster is established, the quarterback is in place, and an identity has been birthed. ISU needs to get after it here and put it on a lesser opponent.
Sept. 7 – BYE WEEK
Can you win a bye week? Yes, yes you can. With game film available, Campbell’s penchant for roster and scheme tinkering gets a timely window. Based on fall camp and Week 1 efforts, Iowa State will have an early opportunity to make any lineup adjusts and scheme shifts it intends to implement for the early part of the Big 12 schedule.
This week becomes a stabilizing and solidifying stretch in the schedule. Where Iowa State has had to shift on the fly in the past, the early bye is a boon to a coach like Matt Campbell, and my expectations are increased by the presence of a fortuitous bye after an important game.
Sept. 14 – v. Iowa
This is an experienced team that will be looking for play makers, but will be content to grind and rely on a solid punter and good defense. The sky is blue and grass is green. Iowa is the most patient team in the country, which is problematic. Also, the 4-2-5 implementation is a difficult wrinkle for the 2019 Cyclones to deal with. However, it becomes excellent preparation for the critical TCU game.
To win this game, ISU must do two things: 1) Find a way through the line to sack and hurry the statue that is the Iowa quarterback, and 2) Scheme to hit deep like they did in the 2017 game. Iowa State has the ability to do both, and may do both in bunches.
The most important aspect of this game is how Iowa State handles pressure from the front four and via the blitz. Iowa State has had difficulty dealing with pressure defenses for each of the last three years. A sign of progression or stagnation will be how they handle the pressure that Iowa will certainly bring to the passing game.
But, this is not a critical game on the schedule. A win is chalked up to the gusto of a rivalry, and a loss is discounted due to the same dynamic. Iowa State is focused on its conference position, and an early season loss to a mid-tier power 5 school does nothing to impact the season as a whole.
There are no stakes here, so I hope to see Iowa State let it rip and key on some schematic wrinkles that can be used in the upcoming conference games to defeat the pressure packages that are certain to be deployed against them.
Sept 21- v. Louisiana Monroe
Just a skip down the road from my residence, Louisiana-Monroe brings a team to Ames that is very similar to last year’s Akron squad. They boast a talented quarterback, but have to replace the entirety of their skill position players. The defensive front-seven is experienced, but the secondary is breaking in three new players and will be vulnerable early in the season. The Warhawks cannot be taken lightly, but there is an opportunity to continue to tinker with the schematics and the personnel combinations while still achieving a decisive victory.
I believe Iowa State needs to establish the identity of its running game in this week. It is nice to have five backs, but none will run with peak efficiency until they receive a workload that allows them to develop a connection with the game being played. It is my belief that the committee of running backs should be paired down to two and maybe a third down specialist in this game. I predict Iowa State will have its first 15 attempt back in this game and that player will be…………………………………………………………………Johnnie Lang.
The end of September will also be a fair time to evaluate the offensive line play and any improvement thereof. Each of the first three opponents provide worthy defensive fronts. If Iowa State is able to show growth in the physical play and create some room for the cadre of backs, then a significant key to competing at a higher level will be unfolding early.
September 28 – at Baylor
Baylor is expected to take another step forward this year after last year’s surprising run to a bowl game. A plucky quarterback, real speed, and an experienced offensive line are featured alongside a more seasoned but still questionable defense.
Baylor will be a soft 3-0 and favored in this game. But, it is my opinion that Baylor is not quite ready for prime time. Even if they are, their defensive deficiencies (pressure and stopping the run) do not match up with Iowa State’s offensive strengths (anticipated to be a diverse running attack with receiving threats at each level).
Waco is not an easy place to play and Iowa State’s penchant for dialing things in during the first four games are reasons for concern. This game ranks number three on the biggest games of the year. It sets the tone in conference, it swings the road imbalance on the schedule, and is a must-win if Iowa State expects to meet pre-season expectations.
October 5 – v. tcu
Back at home in the second biggest game of the season. Three of the four biggest games for Iowa State occur in the first five (4-UNI, 3 – Baylor, 2 – TCU).
TCU is going to be the surprise team in the Big 12. They are talented and if they receive merely stable quarterback play, they will be difficult to beat. TCU will be 4-0 or 3-1 depending on a difficult road test at Purdue, but they will be tested and settling in to their season identity when they roll in to Ames. That identity will be a typically strong defense, especially against the run, and a more run-based offense with perhaps the most dangerous receiving weapon in the league (Jalen Reagor) as a counter balance.
For ISU to win, the Cyclones will need to play as well against the run as they have played in the recent past. While Iowa State has been vulnerable to Sonnie Cumbie’s run schemes, the personnel and anticipated adjustments provide a realistic expectation that this can be accomplished. Offensively, Iowa State has been less than sharp in its contests versus TCU, the unit will have to grind it’s way through this and emerging play makers will have to make the plays that are available to them for chunk yardage and scores.
A win here establishes ISU as a challenger for the title in the conference. Defending home turf sends notice to the conference big wigs. A loss puts pressure on the balance of the schedule and leaves Iowa State relying on a wide open league.
October 12 – at West Virginia
The start of three games in four on the road. West Virginia is no picnic regardless of their prospects when playing at home. However, the script is flipped for this contest. The previous three meetings were between top of league WVU and ascending ISU. This meeting will be between a rebuilding WVU and an established ISU.
The real threat here is in the fortitude and mental state of both teams. Each team will be tested and West Virginia’s difficult schedule is likely to have them in a desperate situation. Iowa State’s position could either be as a title contender, or dealing with the disappointment of a start to the season that does not meet expectations. Either of the multiple scenarios will test the two young head coaches’ ability to rally and finish strong.
Iowa State will need to endure a strong and emotional start and counter with dominance on both sides of the ball. If Iowa State is Iowa State then there should be a quality road victory in this game. If West Virginia tastes blood, then this becomes a challenging and dangerous road contest. Iowa State has passed tests of this nature in the last two seasons, and I expect them to receive top marks on this Saturday, even if graded on the curve.
October 19 – at Texas Tech
A quite unfriendly place to play where odd things happen. Tech could possibly enter this game on a four game losing streak which they will be keen to reverse. Matt Wells is a bastion of preparedness and, even if Tech is in a losing position, that winning margin will be earned. There is talent on both sides of the ball and at this point in the season, Coach Wells’ preferred style of play will begin to manifest fully.
To win this game, Iowa State will need to have answers for Tech’s aggression on both sides of the ball. Tech will play a more fundamentally sound brand of defense. The offense will feature a more established running game which will feature a solid offensive line. Iowa State will again have to grind more than in the past in order to come away with a solid road win. But, that is where I expect this team to excel above all other potential areas of growth.
A season note: The two previous games and this game can be viewed in a microcosm of the season. Wins will be ground out on the ground and through eye-catching improvement in offensive efficiency. The next step forward for this program is a reduced reliance on explosive plays to establish offensive production, and increased efficiency in attacking all offensive zones.
That manifests as completed passes in equal distribution short, middle, and long and both inside and out. In the past, the passing game has been focused short and outside and long and outside with a heavy tendency towards an inside running game. I believe the personnel dictates an attack at three levels inside in the passing game and the ability to attack the edges in the run game. That is not to say that the traditional attack points will not be manifest, but a 20 to 25 percent increase in the efficiency zones mentioned will provide an offense that has the ability to grind through the schedule and the challenges it presents.
October 26 – v. Oklahoma State
It is possible that Oklahoma State visits Ames as a 5-2 or 6-1 team. It is difficult to see them as anything less than 4-3. They are likely to utilize a two quarterback system and provide a more balanced approach than in years past. The major wildcard is the identity and improvement of the defensive effort.
Only Kansas (28) scored fewer than 30 points against Oklahoma State in 2018 during Big 12 play. OSU provided pressure from the front four in 2018 at key times, but they must replace the entire defensive front. Though the secondary is experienced and a second year in a new defensive system will provide some stability, it is hard to prognosticate a marked improvement in the defensive effort.
Iowa State has found itself in scoring contests with the Cowboys in the last three seasons, winning one and losing two. It is the nature of the beast in playing a Mike Gundy led team. I believe Iowa State will need to find a way to slow down the offensive juggernaut in order to hold serve at home. That occurs when OSU is contained on the edges, meaning the quarterback and running back are stifled on the edge forcing the offense to be operated from between the tackles. While OSU remains dangerous from the pocket, their tendency is to push outside in order to set up their wheel based deep middle passing game.
This is the least predictable game on the schedule. Iowa State will be in position to win this game and it will likely be a play in the fourth quarter that will determine the victor.
November 2 – Bye Week
A five Saturday push to the end of the end of the season begins with a much needed bye week. I find this schedule glitch to be highly beneficial for Iowa State. It provides an opportunity to rest any injuries, to perhaps infuse some young depth talent in to the lineup, and to determine any scheme wrinkles that may be appropriate for the two blue blood opponents up next on the schedule.
November 9 – at Oklahoma
Oklahoma will either be an undefeated front runner with an improved defense and seamless transition to Jalen Hurts, or will have one or two losses with reduced offensive efficiency and a defense struggling to adjust to a new culture and scheme. Either way, they are still Oklahoma, at home, and will be in the championship mix.
Oklahoma has two 10 point wins and a 7 point loss versus Iowa State in the last three seasons. The margin here, regardless of venue, is not as large as might be expected. The timing of the contest being late in the season and after a bye week gives Iowa State its first opportunity to just pin its ears back, play relaxed and take some risks on both sides of the ball.
With little riding on a win or loss against Oklahoma, Iowa State will be a dangerous opponent for the Sooners. The game tests the creativity and depth metrics for Iowa State and will be instructive both as to how the season will play out and for the prospects heading in to 2020. A measuring stick at the least and a risk free upset opportunity at its best.
November 16 – v. Texas
The biggest game of the year, whether the record is at expectations or below expectations. Iowa State has yet to solve the Longhorns and have been physically beaten in each of the last three contests.
The primary emphasis for this game is a single word — pressure. The Tom Herman Longhorns have defeated Iowa State by applying disruptive pressure from their defense which Iowa State has not handled in any cohesive manner. I believe the same will manifest and how Iowa State deals with the pressure will determine their fate in this game.
Whereas last season the contest with championship stakes appeared “large” for the Cyclones, the experience of the roster should grow past that point of pressure, especially at home. To win, Iowa State will need to have a better plan for the Texas pressure via direct schematic attacks in to vacated space. Defensively, Iowa State will need to force, as best it can, Texas to become one dimensional. Texas will be a balanced offensive team and Iowa State’s ability to disrupt either the run (through physical box play) or the pass (via pressure from no more than five) will be the key to victory.
The winner here will likely be a championship game participant (TCU, ISU, and OU being the contenders as I think Texas is a lock).
November 23 – v. Kansas
Kansas is resetting again and will be playing out the string until they can restock the cupboards with Les Miles guys. Pooka Williams will be dangerous and his presence prevents this from being a trap game.
Iowa State being Iowa State will get the job done here, but by all means, the final score should resemble the one from the last contest in Ames.
November 30 – at Kansas State
I expect Kansas State to be out of bowl contention and in a position to score a momentum building upset in Farmageddon. Though, I am not sure they will have the fire power to get the job done.
Iowa State is a better team. They will be playing to improve their bowl position or to preserve their position in the championship game. Motivation will not be threatened here and I expect a spirited performance. To win, Iowa State will need to erase the mistakes that have plagued the last two contests. Absent interceptions and penalties, Iowa State was the superior team in each of the last two seasons. That will be true in the final game of the season.
What does It All Mean?
Well, not much given that predictions mean nothing. My expectation is that Iowa State will prove worthy of the expectations and will lose one game in each four game block (Iowa, TCU, and Oklahoma) resulting in a 9 win season, however, will miss out on the championship game via tiebreakers.
That said, I can just as easily project a five loss season (Iowa, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Texas). If the five loss scenario becomes reality, then several of those losses will be very narrow margins leaving Cyclone fans to lament what could have been.
The key to the season is whether the offensive threats seep in to little utilized areas of attack. Utilizing the primary skill sets of the veteran slot receivers and the Swiss Army Knife tight end crew will be the method by which that will be achieved. Their usage provides the key to both the passing game expansion and the run game pivot to an edge threat (yes, that means that I am confident the offensive line will take a step forward). The defense should be just as good as the 2018 unit, which places the improvement pressure squarely on the offense.