WILLIAMS: A lean towards being optimistic about Iowa State football in 2022

Photo courtesy of the Big 12.

ARLINGTON, Texas — We are a month and a half away from kicking off the 2022 football season and I wholeheartedly believe the following: This might be the most wide-open Big 12 season I have ever covered. 

The league will not have a dominant team and will cannibalize itself out of any consideration for the College Football Playoff. 

By my estimation, all of the above – mixed with some homegrown development – is a good sign for the future of Cyclone football under now seventh-year head coach Matt Campbell. 

There are a couple of ways to think about Iowa State specifically heading into September. 

The pessimist … You lost a ton of starters from a team that was projected to be the most talented in your school’s history. That group ended up 7-6 and on the surface, you are essentially entering rebuild mode. 

The optimist … Iowa State’s program has seen better recruiting and development over the years and is ready to “reload” instead of rebuild. Last year’s 20-13 Cheez-It Bowl loss to Clemson showed us what has been lurking underneath the hood on the scout team.

“I thought it was a huge game, a huge opportunity,” Campbell said. “And a lot of guys took huge steps forward in that football game. I think it gave us confidence going into the offseason. And was also a roadmap of what you need to do to be better.”

Iowa State, despite fielding a host of newcomers in September, will also boast anchors at key positions like Will McDonald (DE), Isaiah Lee (DT), O’Rien Vance (LB), Anthony Johnson (S), Xavier Hutchinson (WR), and Trevor Downing (OL).

I wouldn’t criticize anyone for having either opinion on the Cyclones.

Most of the national scribes in Dallas see Iowa State from the pessimist’s point of view. Despite the fact that Campbell has had Iowa State in the top half of the Big 12 for the last five seasons, most analysts outside the state of Iowa are not believers. 

I probably fall somewhere in the middle, with a hard lean towards the side of the optimist. 

The aforementioned bowl game was a big deal for me, personally. Watching so many Iowa State backups go toe-to-toe with one of the best programs in college football (albeit Clemson was on a down year) showed that improved recruiting and development is occurring at a higher level behind the scenes than we have ever seen at Iowa State. 

“Boy, I would sure hope so,” Campbell said. “You know, I think when you look at our team, and it’s like, boy, have we been here before? We have lost (David) Montgomery, and we lost (Allen) Lazard and we lost (Hakeem) Butler. And next thing you know, everybody says, ‘Geez how can they recover when you lose Lanning? How are they going to recover?’”

New guys came in and moved the program forward. Why wouldn’t that happen now?

“What great programs have and I think what’s happened in our society and in college football is nobody stays on builds or program anymore,” Campbell said. “And you know, you hope to have great players and you hope those players raise the standard of the program and leave it in a better place. And I would say that the group that just left has done that.”

Matt Campbell is now the second-longest tenured coach in the Big 12 (behind Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy). Staggering, right?

I come from an era where if Iowa State football had some success, you’d lose your seniors, the schedule would turn around and you’d go back to 2-10 for a few years.  

Those days are long gone. 

Iowa State was picked by the league’s media to finish sixth in the Big 12, which is totally fair. (For the record, I tabbed the Cyclones at fifth in my poll.)

Upon leaving Dallas and studying this league obsessively for a few days, absolutely nothing would surprise me with the Cyclones this season – or for most of the Big 12. 

If things go really well, 8-4 and surpassing last season’s win total is a real possibility. I don’t see the floor dropping much below 6-6 either, which is encouraging. 

It’s all kind of crazy when you think about how much talent this program lost in one offseason.