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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 81: Iowa State

How does Iowa State win games? As a whole, the program has brought in only 10 four-star recruits since the 2003 recruiting cycle, according to Rivals.com. In comparison, Texas, a team Iowa State beat on the road in 2010, signed 15 four-star recruits on this winter’s national signing day alone. The program has not finished better than second-to-last in the Big 12 team recruiting rankings since 2004. There’s little that would lead one to believe that Iowa State, with little in its corner, could hang with the programs to which life comes easy. But there’s coaching. Grit, perhaps? An underdog mentality tinged with a devil-may-care attitude, one that leads I.S.U. to engage its heavily-favored conference foes with guerrilla warfare, sneaking through the back door to win five, six, seven games. When the dust clears, the rest of the Big 12 asks the following question: How did Iowa State win six games? Sometimes, a team will ask: How did Iowa State beat us? If there was a way to bottle moxie, you’d see a picture of Paul Rhoads and the Cyclones on the label.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Ames, Ia.

Nickname
Cyclones

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 88

2011 record
(6-7, 3-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 68

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Tulsa
  • Sept. 8
    at Iowa
  • Sept. 15
    Western Illinois
  • Sept. 29
    Texas Tech
  • Oct. 6
    at T.C.U.
  • Oct. 13
    Kansas St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 27
    Baylor
  • Nov. 3
    Oklahoma
  • Nov. 10
    at Texas
  • Nov. 17
    at Kansas
  • Nov. 24
    West Virginia

Last year’s prediction

If Iowa State does disappoint in 2011 — and disappoint is a relative term — it will not be because of a lack of fortitude; it will be because, simply put, the Cyclones don’t have the horses. You don’t want to make the schedule an excuse, as this is life in the new-look Big 12. But the Cyclones do jump into 2011 with force, facing seven consecutive bowl teams after Northern Iowa and closing with three more. It doesn’t add up to a successful season. Take solace in the fact that the Cyclones will play hard every Saturday, and will probably beat one team they shouldn’t.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Fast-forward a decade. What are the five things all will remember from the 2011 season? Alabama’s title. Alabama’s loss to L.S.U. two months before. Robert Griffin III lighting up the world. Penn State, of course. What about Iowa State’s win over Oklahoma State? In terms of the unexpected, I’m not sure if another win comes close – though the happenings in Happy Valley remains the most devastatingly unexpected event to happen in the recent history of college sports. In terms of one regular season game that impacted the B.C.S., there’s no other win that comes close. Imagine if O.S.U. wins on that Saturday evening in November – aren’t the Cowboys meeting L.S.U. in New Orleans in January? Perhaps no other win altered the landscape of college football in 2011. And for Iowa State, the win was the difference between a return to bowl play and a second straight bowl-free season. Unexpected? Yes. But when it comes to I.S.U. football under Rhoads, it’s safe to expect the unexpected.

High point Yes, the win over Oklahoma State. But don’t sleep on another overtime win, this one on Sept. 10: Iowa State 44, Iowa 41. The victory was Rhoads’ first against the rival Hawkeyes after losing his first two tries by a combined score of 70-10.

Low point The defense was horrible over the first four games of conference play. Texas scored 37 points in its win; typically, it took Texas two games to get to 37 points. Baylor dropped 49 points a week later, Missouri 52 points a week after that, and A&M sealed Iowa State’s 0-4 start to Big 12 action with a 33-17 win in Ames.

Tidbit Five of Iowa State’s six wins last fall came by six points or less. Two, Oklahoma State and Iowa, came in overtime. If you include a 41-7 win over Texas Tech on Oct. 29, the Cyclones’ average margin of victory was 10.2 points; if you take the Red Raiders out of the equation, the average margin of victory falls to 3.4 points. In comparison, Iowa State’s seven losses came by an average of 19.7 points. Only one of those seven defeats, a 30-23 decision to Kansas State in the regular season finale, came by less than 14 points.

Tidbit (Oklahoma State edition) Three more notes on the win over Oklahoma State. The Cowboys scored 24 points during regulation, with one touchdown coming on a pick-six. O.S.U. averaged 50.2 points per game over the remaining 12 games on its schedule – all wins, of course. The Cowboys’ five turnovers tied a program high in Big 12 games over the last five years, matching a five-giveaway game against Texas in 2009. Finally, I.S.U. ran an astounding 97 plays during regulation, keeping the potent O.S.U. offense on the bench for more than 35 minutes of game time.

Tidbit (spreads edition) The Cyclones are used to being the underdog. According to the university – and I’m not sure what spread-maker it’s using – Iowa State was an underdog in 11 of its 12 games against B.C.S. conference competition in 2011. That shouldn’t change in 2012: One site, Beyond the Bets, has I.S.U. favored in only one Big 12 game, against Kansas. The Cyclones are four-point favorites in that one, but are listed as the underdog in home games against Texas Tech (-6), Kansas State (-7.5), Baylor (-3.5), Oklahoma (-20) and West Virginia (-10). When it comes to road games, I.S.U. is a heavy underdog against T.C.U. (-20.5), Oklahoma State (-19) and Texas (-21).

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 LB Tim Dobbins (Houston), TE Collin Franklin (Tampa Bay), OG Hayworth Hicks (Indianapolis), CB Leonard Johnson (Tampa Bay), OT Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore), QB Sage Rosenfels (Minnesota), DT Ahtyba Rubin (Cleveland), S David Sims (Cleveland), C Reggie Stephens (Cincinnati), QB Seneca Wallace (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Small forwards in the 2012 N.B.A. Draft
1. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky.
2. Harrison Barnes, North Carolina.
3. Royce White, Iowa State.
4. Draymond Green, Michigan State.
5. Moe Harkless, St. John’s.

Coaching

Paul Rhoads (Missouri Western ’89), 18-20 after three seasons with the Cyclones. No rookie coach had a better season in 2009 than Rhoads, who led Iowa State to a shocking seven-win campaign — with all of it guaranteed, of course. He couldn’t duplicate that feat in 2010, when I.S.U. slid to 5-7 overall, but Rhoads led the Cyclones back into bowl play last fall. Obviously, the I.S.U. administration should be extremely pleased with 18 wins over three years. Born only 10 minutes from Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium, his hiring marked a homecoming of sorts for Rhoads, who also spent five seasons as an Iowa State assistant (1995-99) under Dan McCarney. Rhoads spent the 2008 season as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, where he piloted a Tiger defense that allowed an average of only 17.3 points (15th nationally) and 165.4 passing yards; his defense couldn’t be blamed for Auburn’s poor 2008 season. Before his one-year stint with the Tigers, Rhoads spent eight seasons as the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, serving under Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt. His defenses, typified by stout run stuffers and aggressive defensive backs, have frequently ranked among the top 25 in the country. Like his predecessor before him, Rhoads brought a very good defensive resume to Ames. What separated him from the start was the sense that he is in for the long haul. I’m not sure if there’s a coach easier to root for in the Big 12, if not the entire B.C.S. conference landscape.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Iowa State has two new faces on its coaching staff. First, a change in title: Courtney Messingham, formerly the wide receivers coach, takes over Ohio State-bound Tom Herman’s duties as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Don’t look for Messingham to change anything; the Cyclones will remain no-huddle and up-tempo. Rhoads hired former Washington State coordinator Todd Sturdy to coach the wide receivers – and look for Sturdy to help Messingham with the Cyclones’ quarterbacks and in the passing game. I.S.U. also named former North Carolina defensive backs coach Troy Douglas to the same position, replacing Bobby Elliott, who left the program in January to join Brian Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame. Rhoads didn’t have many spots to fill, but he certainly made the most of the opportunity.

Players to watch

Perhaps Messingham can help I.S.U. convert via the running game on short-yardage downs, even if that takes moving the quarterback under center in certain situations. While a fairly strong running team overall in 2011 – 39th nationally in yards per game – the Cyclones struggled in this area: the running game converted a hair more than 50 percent of its chances on third down and six or fewer yards, which is not a good conversion rate. Given the uncertainty in the passing game, where the Cyclones are far too prone to turnovers, an ability to move the chains on third-and-short could lift this offense to new heights.

That’s a nice way to segue into talk of the offensive line. Iowa State’s front is missing two major contributors: Kelechi Osemele at left tackle and Hayworth Hicks at right guard. It’s far from a stretch to say that Osemele left Ames as the finest offensive lineman in school history. A former JUCO transfer, Hicks moved into the starting lineup immediately in 2010, starting 24 games overall and earning second-team all-conference honors as a senior. They leave huge holes at two vital positions.

One aside: I.S.U. was unlucky to suffer a few nicks and bruises along the line last fall, which did strain the team’s depth – especially later in the year. That several younger linemen earned time last fall is a major positive heading into 2012, even if Osemele and Hicks will be hard to replace. A key factor inside will be the play of sophomore center Tom Farniok, who won’t land the same sort of support as he did as a rookie starter. He’ll improve, but Farniok must improve to the point where he can handle interior defensive linemen one-on-one. He’ll be joined inside by left guard Ethan Tuftee, a returning starter, and, for now, sophomore Jacob Gannon at right guard. Another sophomore, Shaban Dika, could push Gannon for snaps if he makes a rapid recovery from a springtime knee injury.

I.S.U. also has options at tackle, even if – and not to continue harping on this point – none are Osemele-like, or perhaps even Osemele-lite. Senior Carter Bykowski and junior Kyle Lichtenberg are battling for the starting job at left tackle while senior Brayden Burris remains in the starting lineup on the right side. But if Bykowski nails down Osemele’s old spot, Lichtenberg has improved enough to push Burris for snaps on the strong side. However, Burris, who played with a plate in his broken leg last season, is one guy I.S.U. wants to have in the starting lineup.

The offensive front will be blocking for a few accomplished returning backs, led by junior James White (743 yards and 8 touchdowns), last year’s leading rusher. White will continue to be the Cyclones’ top back until junior Shontrelle Johnson (247 yards) recovers from last season’s neck injury; he was lost for the year after four games, pushing White into the starting lineup.

If Johnson doesn’t return, I.S.U. will need one of two redshirt freshmen, DeVondrick Neal and Rob Standard, to lend the running game a missing dose of explosiveness. One thing that won’t change: Jeff Woody (380 yards, 6 touchdowns) will remain Iowa State’s big back. In a perfect world, Johnson is back in the lineup by September, either starting or splitting carries with White. In a nearly-perfect world, Johnson remains sidelined but one of the two freshmen fill the void.

A steady stream of incoming talent at wide receiver has given I.S.U. its best depth at the position in years. What the group lacks, however, is a big-play threat. That’s not such a debilitating fact as it might be elsewhere, given how the offense spreads the ball around; nevertheless, I.S.U. could use a big year out of senior Josh Lenz (39 catches for 510 yards), the lone returning starter. Injuries were a bit of an issue in the spring, but by the time I.S.U. kicks off in September, Lenz will be joined in the starting lineup by senior Aaron Horne (38 for 431), the Big 12’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year last fall, and sophomore Jarvis West (25 for 141).

Several other receivers will make double-digit grabs. One is junior Albert Gary (23 for 287), who came up huge in the win over the Cowboys. Another is senior Chris Young, though he sat out most of the spring with a concussion. Also: redshirt freshmen Quenton Bundrage, Ja’Quarius Daniels and Tad Ecby, not to mention converted quarterback Jerome Tiller – remember him against Nebraska in 2009? – who could fill a role in the red zone. While I.S.U. wants to get more out of its tight ends in the passing game, Messingham can take solace in the fact that seniors Kurt Hammerschmidt (13 for 126) and Ricky Howard provide wonderful support in the running game. If I.S.U. wants a pass-catcher, that should open up a role for former JUCO transfer Ernst Brun.

Unlike in 2009, Iowa State did not squeeze into bowl play last fall on the back of its defense. While not the worst group in the Big 12, or even among the worst three groups in the league, last year’s defense struggled mightily against the Big 12’s upper crust of offenses – Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri and Baylor averaged 549.0 yards per game on the Cyclones. The run defense was an issue throughout, but one thing last year’s defense did reasonably well was defend the pass; only one conference foe – and one team altogether – threw for more than 290 yards, and that’s a pretty impressive feat when considering the quality of quarterback play in last season’s Big 12.

The secondary will have a somewhat different look in 2012. The Cyclones must replace a pair of starters in strong safety Ter’Ran Benton and cornerback Leonard Johnson; the latter was a second-team all-Big 12 selection as a junior and senior. Another aside: Rhoads always seems to have a transition plan in place. That’s the case in the secondary, where the likely replacements for Benton and Johnson have played enough over the last two or three years to make a fairly painless move into the starting lineup.

Junior cornerback Jansen Watson (12 tackles) started one game a season ago in addition to serving as the Cyclones’ first cornerback off the bench. He’ll replace Johnson, joining senior Jeremy Reeves (70 tackles, 2 interceptions) in the starting lineup. Benton will be replaced by senior Durrell Givens (31 tackles), a key secondary reserve who moves over from free safety. That position change will team Givens with free safety Jacques Washington (90 tackles), putting Iowa State’s two best safeties on the field at the same time. I.S.U. also has some quality depth, though most comes at cornerback – JUCO transfer Clifford Stokes, sophomore Matt Thomas and redshirt freshmen Sam Richardson and Kenneth Lynn, for example. Even if the Cyclones’ pass defense takes a step back, it won’t be a substantial decline.

The defensive line must do a better job getting pressure on the quarterback, and must do so while breaking in three new starters. The one returning starter, senior Jake McDonough (35 tackles, 4.5 for loss), will move into Stephen Rueompolhamer’s spot at nose tackle. What the Cyclones need is a healthy Roosevelt Maggitt; a projected starter at end, where I.S.U. must replace Jake Lattimer and Patrick Neal, Maggitt is still recovering from the knee injury that ended his 2011 season after one game. I.S.U. went with junior Willie Scott at end during the spring, but Maggitt’s past experience makes him an invaluable piece of the puzzle on this defense.

When all locked and loaded, the Cyclones’ defensive front will have Maggitt and sophomore David Irving at end, McDonough on the nose and senior Cleyon Laing (12 tackles) at tackle. If Maggitt remains slowed by his knee injury, I.S.U. can either hand his job over to Scott or redshirt freshman Devin Lemke, who is currently running behind Irving on the opposite side. The big question: Can I.S.U. get pressure with just four rushers? Irving is a blossoming talent, McDonough a steady presence inside – albeit one changing positions – and when healthy, Maggitt can produce. But the line as a whole is a question mark.

Saving the best for last: I.S.U. has the best one-two linebacker combination that is never raised in discussions of the best one-two linebacker combinations in college football. Quick: Name the Big 12’s co-Defensive Players of the Year in 2011. If you named Oklahoma end Frank Alexander, nice job. If you named Alexander and Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein, you’re a loyal reader. Klein (116 tackles, 7.5 for loss), a senior, is a Midwestern linebacker straight out of central casting – a big, tough, strong, mobile run-stuffer who will surprise you with his overlooked athleticism. How good is he? Klein is good enough to put this defense on his back, carrying an otherwise questionable front seven into competition against the top slice of the Big 12.

And he’s just one part of one of the nation’s best linebacker corps, joining fellow senior Jake Knott (115 tackles, 2 interceptions), a second-team all-Big 12 pick a season ago. Irreplaceable? Without a doubt. The Cyclones go as far defensively as this pair takes them; without Klein and Knott, Iowa State moves from average defensively into Kansas territory – if not that bad, then somewhere among the bottom 20 defenses in college football. Awesomely efficient, Klein and Knott form the most proven and productive linebacker pairing in college football. I don’t think I’d trade them for any other pair. While Knott will remain on the weak side, I.S.U. will move Klein from the strong side into the middle to replace Matt Tau’fo’ou. That’ll open up the strong side to either sophomore C.J. Morgan or junior Deon Broomfield.

I.S.U. has a very nice punter in junior Kirby Van Der Kamp, an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick last fall. But there’s reason for concern at kicker, even if lost starter Zach Guyer was far from automatic as a senior – though he had his moments. Redshirt freshman Chris Moore and sophomore Mitch Amundson handled kicking duties during the spring, but both are expected to take a back seat to incoming freshman Cole Netten, a summertime arrival. A kicker is a kicker, and freshmen can easily step right in and deliver consistency from day one. Nevertheless, the situation is cause for a sleepless night – more than one, perhaps.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve all been here before. Oh, right. Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett were jostling for the starting job last spring. And again last August. And again for much of last season. Well, here we go again. Whether by choice – because he really is unsure as to which is the better option – or for motivational purposes – he wants both to play as if they’re in the race – Rhoads declined to name a starting quarterback at the end of spring ball, opting to head into the summer and fall camp with a two-horse race still very much underway. Again, it’ll be Jantz and Barnett – or Barnett and Jantz, depending on which horse you’re pulling for, I suppose.

So what separates one from the other? Both won three games as the starter in 2011. Each won one big game in overtime; Jantz topped Iowa, Barnett topped Oklahoma State. Both were far too prone to turnovers. Both lacked optimal experience; Jantz was a first-year JUCO transfer, Barnett a redshirt freshman. Jantz is a little flashier, though Rhoads is not looking for flash – he wants consistency. That’s gives Barnett a slight edge, you’d think. And what about redshirt freshman Sam Richardson? For now, he’s running a distant third in the competition.

It’s going to come down to Jantz and Barnett. If he can cut down on his poor decisions and play more within himself and this offense, Jantz likely gives I.S.U. the best chance at winning games in 2012. If it was that easy, of course, Jantz would start for most teams in college football – he’s a gunslinger, one who makes one awful play for every two jaw-dropping plays, and he could stand to keep his pistol in his holster for the good of the offense as a whole. If Barnett can limit his turnovers, both interceptions and fumbles, he might give I.S.U. its best chance at consistent play under center. As you can see, Rhoads has a tough choice to make. Look for one to get the starting nod in August but both to play throughout the year. Who starts in September might not finish in November.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule is no picnic. Iowa State’s non-conference slate features Tulsa, Iowa and Western Illinois. A 3-0 mark would be optimal, of course, but 2-1 seems like the best-case scenario. One thing the schedule does allow for is the opportunity for a nice start: I.S.U. gets four home games over the first half – with road dates against Iowa and T.C.U., however – before entering the meat of Big 12 play. In terms of must-win games, the Cyclones can’t afford to finish worse than 4-1 against the following: Tulsa, Western Illinois, Texas Tech, Baylor and Kansas. Anything less than that would leave this team as a decided underdog to reach bowl play. The Cyclones love being the underdog, however.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Anyone pegging this team for a three-win season knows nothing about Iowa State football. The Cyclones are too well-coached, have too much experience, do the little things too well and enjoy the challenge far too much – an unhealthy amount, almost – to win only three games. Reaching a third bowl game in four years, on the other hand, might present too much of a hurdle for even this program to overcome. But why not? I.S.U. will get better quarterback play. There’s solid depth at wide receiver. Rhoads and his staff are high on the two redshirt freshmen at running back. The linebacker corps is absolutely superb. The transition plan in place in the secondary should allow the Cyclones to come fairly close to matching last year’s solid numbers against the pass. Above all else, I.S.U. always, always beats one team it shouldn’t. So why can’t this team do it again, overcoming all the doubters to squeeze into bowl play with six wins? I think it can, though I don’t think it will. There are some fairly significant holes to replace along the offensive line – no longer can the Cyclones simply rely on Osemele and Hicks to handle blockers one-on-one. The new-look defensive line needs to prove it can do a better job stopping the run while getting pressure on third down. The kicking game is a concern, though I.S.U. will get solid production at punter and in the return game. And the doubters are onto one thing: I.S.U. is going to have a hard time against this conference schedule. I think that the Cyclones are going to get to five wins in an ugly fashion, beating two or three teams late and knocking off a heavily-favored opponent, but a bowl trip will be hard to achieve. It’s hard out there for an underdog.

Dream season Iowa State wins eight games: Tulsa, Iowa, Western Illinois, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Baylor and Kansas. Is that only seven? The eighth win comes over then-No. 1 Oklahoma, of course.

Nightmare season I.S.U. goes 3-9, beating Tulsa and Western Illinois in September but only Kansas once the calendar turns to Big 12 play. The three wins marks the program’s fewest in a season since he-who-shall-not-be-named sulked the sidelines at Jack Trice Stadium.

In case you were wondering

Where do Iowa State fans congregate? There are three good Iowa State fan sites: Cyclone FanaticCyclone Report and Cyclone Sports Report. One of the latter two needs to switch its name to avoid confusion. For a blog’s take, check out the always-strong Wide Right and Natty Lite. As always, send me your favorite blogs, message boards and beat reporters yearning to be included in this section.

Iowa State’s all-name nominee QB Steele Jantz.

Word Count

Through 44 teams 157,012.

Up Next

Who is No. 80? The city that houses tomorrow’s university is also home to a summer baseball league for college players. Among the team’s notable alumni is a left-handed pitcher whose last name would earn 30 points on a Scrabble board, if we don’t count for any bonus points.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Rzepczynski for 30 points. He played in the West Coast League for the Corvallis Knights.

    I think Oregon State is next, but the West Coast League appears to be headquartered in Portland.

  2. AWUSA says:

    Iowa State is somewhere in the 50s nationally on talent level. You have the dynamic backwards. They don’t get six wins with “magic.” They only get six wins because they play a tough schedule. Put them in the Big East or ACC and they win nine or ten.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    Seems like we’re finally to Oregon State.

  4. Vic says:

    Didn’t Iowa State beat Oklahoma State on a Friday?

  5. Burnt Orange says:

    Barnett is a player. Have seen him will his teams to wins since his high school days. A true dual threat qb, he engineered that OSU upset as a freshman. Rhoads needs to go with him.

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