Dec 28, 2019; Orlando, Florida, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell looks on against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first quarter at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Campbell is feeling joyful.
College football fans across the country can surely relate to the feeling as we roll into a week that many of us probably thought would not come in 2020.
The Cyclones will play a football game on Saturday. It will not be against the arch-rival generally scheduled for the second week of September, but, darn it, the Cyclones are going to play a football game, and against a dang good team from Lafayette, La.
There’s only one emotion to describe how it feels to write those words — joy.
The Cyclones will play a football game on Saturday.
“I think from an emotional standpoint presently, I think there’s just a general sense of calmness in the fact that we’re finally getting to play. I think that in a very chaotic world to find some calmness and regularity, which I think we’ve been able to find the last couple weeks knowing that we were working towards something, I think it’s been really joyful,” Campbell said during the Big 12 teleconference on Monday. “Prior to that, you knew you were working, you just didn’t know what you were working towards. I think from my end of it, one of the great joys that I’ve found in this whole process has really been our kids. When you talk about building a culture and program, I think that’s one of the things that we’re really blessed with is we’ve got a veteran team, we’ve got kids who have been here and sacrificed to turn this program around and they’ve made those same sacrifices to play the sport of football this fall.”
A month ago, the likelihood of seeing this week arrive during the 2020 calendar year seemed like a near impossibility. Conferences were
cancelling postponing their fall seasons left and right, including the Big 12’s Power 5 brethren, the Big Ten and Pac-12, but the other three major conferences held strong, at least pushing back the idea of cancelling postponing the season as far as possible.
At that time, the Cyclones did not even have a non-conference opponent on the schedule. For several days after the Big 12 announced its plans to push forward, we speculated on who would land the role as the Cyclones’ one out-of-league game on its 10-game regular-season slate that must rank among the most highly anticipated seasons in program history.
The Cyclones are a top-25 team with expectations higher than any other time during the program’s existence and aspirations of competing for championships behind a bonafide star quarterback, a trio of tight ends many consider to be the nation’s best, a rising star tailback and one of the Big 12’s best defenses led by a plethora of returning playmakers.
Well, as luck would have it, the team they ended up agreeing to add to their non-conference schedule has some pretty high aspirations of its own.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (formerly Louisiana-Lafayette) are coming off one of the best seasons in program history and are picked to win the Sun Belt in 2020. They return a talented and experienced senior quarterback, a pair of tailbacks with more combined yards and rushing touchdowns in their careers than any duo in the country and an offensive line with four starters from last year’s squad.
Not only will the Cyclones be playing a football game on Saturday, they will be playing a football game against a team that projects to be awfully good.
“I think just in general this is one of the better offenses in the country this year,” Campbell said of Billy Napier’s team. “When you have a senior quarterback as talented as what Levi (Lewis) is and then you’ve got playmakers around them, some veteranness on the offensive line, veteranness at tailback, you’re talking about an outstanding football team coming in here. It doesn’t really matter what conference or what the situation is, I just think when you look at the talent in general this is a really talented football team. So much credit to the quarterback position. Levi Lewis is as talented a quarterback that we’ve seen just in terms of what he’s got the ability to do and we get to play great quarterbacks in this conference all the time. He’s certainly as talented as the young men that we face week in and week out. It’s a great challenge for us. It’s certainly a great challenge for our defense.”
Sure, Saturday’s game will be unlike any other played at Jack Trice Stadium without Iowa State’s loyal fanbase packing the seats. Coaches and players on the sidelines will wear masks in order to mitigate, slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Rather than the scent of grill smoke and delicious tailgating fare filling the air, it will be the smell of disinfectant.
It will be weird. It will surely be eery on some level. It will feel ridiculously quiet at times, I’m sure, but it will be a football game — and it is hard to complain too much about that.
“If I told you I’d probably be lying to say I know what game day environment will feel like,” Campbell said. “It will definitely be unique. Those are one of those things you can’t control, so you just deal with whatever comes your way with it, but I definitely think it will be unique. I obviously know from a fan standpoint that won’t be happening here right now, but I think that’s just something that… Our kids go out to practice every day and literally play the sport without fans, so I don’t think that will be too hard to adjust to.”
We will have plenty of time throughout the week to dive into the impact of not having fans in the stands or the individual on-field matchups at every level between the Cyclones and Ragin’ Cajuns, beginning Tuesday with a new episode of Football (And Random Things) and a written deep-dive into Louisiana’s personnel.
For today, let’s all just sit back and bask in the fact we arrived at a week few of us expected to in 2020.
The Cyclones will play football on Saturday — and the only thing those words make me feel is joy.
“I think from my end just appreciating their maturity through a really chaotic time and really kind of finding joy in their calmness and their regularity that I think they’ve found in preparing for a football game,” Campbell said. “That’s certainly been a great joy for myself and I know our staff.”