WILLIAMS: Despite crumbling bowl system, Cheez-It Bowl win vs. Clemson would still mean a lot for Iowa State

Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell celebrates with the trophy after the Fiesta Bowl against the Oregon Ducks at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. — Looking back on the Matt Campbell era at Iowa State, I consider the 2017 Liberty Bowl to be the major turning point for the program. 

There were games leading up to that blustery day in urban Tennessee that probably meant more. 

Winning at Oklahoma with a third-string starting quarterback as a 30-point underdog was as shocking as they come. Kind of a, “Hello, look at us,” type of moment (Kempt > Mayfield forever).

Following that up a few weeks later with a win over a top-five TCU team in Ames was just as big (Cambell’s “Only bullshit programs care about 6-6,” postgame comment to the team will forever be one of my favorite quotes). 

Even after beating two top-five teams that season, nobody really knew if they could trust the Cyclones.

Well, maybe Cyclone Jerry did.

But, winning consistently was a new concept to all of us and there was a need to “prove it” in the minds of many.

Frankly, those early Campbell Iowa State teams – while surely upgraded in the talent department compared to previous years – were not close to what you see today when accounting for scholarships 1-85.

That 2017 Liberty Bowl win over Memphis was absolutely perfect for a second-year coach attempting to build a program.

It wasn’t as prestigious as what would eventually come – a New Year’s Six victory over Phil Knight’s Oregon Ducks in the 2021 Fiesta Bowl.

That is the best win in the history of Cyclone football.

But, that Liberty Bowl’s atmosphere was magical.

Tiger and Cyclone fans split down the middle like a Red River Shootout.

Pregame, nights before on Beale St. and in the stadium counting down to kickoff, gave any Loyal Son all of the feels.

To top it off, the game itself was quite dramatic — and resulted in a win. 

I’ll never forget Campbell holding up the football midfield after the game and telling the tens of thousands of Cyclone fans in attendance that the “standard has been raised.”

There is a poster from that moment hanging up in my office. 

Bowl haters be damned, that mid-level bowl game truly meant something to the foundation of this current Iowa State football program.

I wanted to state that on the record because frankly, I have been hypocritical about all of this over the last month or so.

That is in regards to my recent critiques of bowl games, and our entire approach to college football’s postseason.

Bowl games still mean something, but as is the case with anything in life, we need to approach these exhibitions on a program-by-program basis. 

College football is sending major mixed messages to its fans and it has become very confusing. 

I have always been a “bowl guy.” I want to be a “bowl guy.” Give me all the bowls!

Hell, for years, when pundits lazily argued that there were too many bowl games, I rejected it.

Limit it to 10 bowl games or so and you’ll have the same 30 schools going to the postseason every year – accumulating valuable extra practices and separating themselves from the pack (exactly what we have seen with the four-team playoff).

I think it’s great that 6-6 MAC schools get an opportunity to play one more time in front of a larger audience than normal.

The bowl system is fairly scummy (READ THIS), but as long as both parties agree to play the games, what is some extra shitty football on a Tuesday afternoon in December hurting?

The problem is that the overall bowl model is broken, largely due to the College Football Playoff watering down many of these “lesser” games. 

Take this week’s Cheez-It Bowl vs. Clemson as an example.

If Iowa State wins this game, I will argue it is the second-best bowl win for the program and perhaps a top-five win in school history. (That’s all up for debate.)

Beating Clemson on this type of stage would be a really big deal, especially for a program still as young as Iowa State’s (in terms of past success). 

All of that is true, but so is this:

Breece Hall, perhaps the greatest player in school history, isn’t playing, which I can’t say I blame him for at all.

Not only that, but Iowa State has 10 players in the transfer portal, including a top-five defensive player from the last two seasons in safety Isheem Young. 

This isn’t the same team that we watched take the field all season. It is like some weird blend between the past and future (which in its own way is cool to a geek like me).

That is double-digit players, who we all watched compete for the Cyclones this year, who, for one reason or another, have decided that this “postseason” game doesn’t mean enough for them to stick around.

For the record, this isn’t all the fault of the bowls. Early recruiting, the transfer portal, coaching movement, etc. all play into it, along with the bulk of the problem, the four-team playoff. 

Iowa State is far from alone in this scenario.

Still, this showdown vs. Clemson provides plenty of charm. 

“The past three years we played Notre Dame, Oregon and Clemson, you know, really, really good programs that earlier on the school wouldn’t have ever had the chance to play,” sophomore running back Jirehl Brock said in Orlando on Monday. “I feel like all these opportunities that we’re getting are just opportunities to prove ourselves prove to ourselves and then prove to everybody else that we belong here.”

Jirehl nailed it.

Let’s all face it: Iowa State doesn’t exactly have a large trophy room when it comes to the sport of football.

I specifically remember having a similar conversation about this with Campbell on some freezing cold random high school football field in Memphis back in 2017.

Iowa State has been playing football for over 100 years.

This is the program’s 17th bowl bid.

The Cyclones are 5-11 in bowl games.

Campbell has made it seem so, but this isn’t exactly a “normal” time we are living in when it comes to Iowa State’s output on the gridiron.

Now, you get an opportunity to go up against a program that has been ranked in the top five in each of the past six seasons and has two national championships to show for it.

Would a bowl win over Clemson erase a somewhat disappointing season? No. 

Would it help take the sting away? Yes.

Would it help build Iowa State’s future? Absolutely.

This game is a bridge to the program’s future.

In the College Football Playoff Era, Dabo Swinney and Clemson have reached blue blood status. Beating this team – especially down Breece Hall – would absolutely mean something. 

I’ll go on the record to state that this is a “big game” for the Cyclones. It is also the final game for program icons like Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar, Mike Rose and Greg Eisworth.

That means something


Higher-ups in the sport will argue for the “bowl experience.” 

I would counter that if these bowls are so great, why do so many players and coaches opt-out of them these days? Hell, Brian Kelly didn’t even care about his team potentially making the playoff.

Don’t get too hung up on all of that. We all need a little more gray area in our lives, and less black and white when having these nuanced conversations. 

Two things can be true at once.

The traditional bowl model can be crumbling before our very eyes and this can still be an important game that can serve as another stepping stone for the future of Iowa State football.

At least that’s how I’ll approach Wednesday afternoon in Orlando.