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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. 88: Iowa State

The stars aligned in 2009 but faded in 2010, and the magic seemed to leave the building down the stretch. It won’t work every season, but one thing is clear: Paul Rhoads will have Iowa State playing Dan McCarney-style football on a yearly basis, by which I mean his Cyclones will not quit, will not be intimidated and will not lose games on paper despite the lopsided odds placed against them. Rhoads is that kind of coach, a 180-degree emotional turn from his predecessor, he-who-shall-not-be-named, and he makes Iowa State fun, likeable and easy to root for. One only hopes that the McCarney similarities remain on the field — if Iowa State mistakes successive losing seasons as a sign Rhoads can’t get it done, I fully expect the fan base to rise up in full-throated protest.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Ames, Ia.

Nickname
Cyclones

Returning starters
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 88

2010 record
(5-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 74

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Northern Iowa
  • Sept. 10
    Iowa
  • Sept. 16
    at Connecticut
  • Oct. 1
    Texas
  • Oct. 8
    at Baylor
  • Oct. 15
    at Missouri
  • Oct. 22
    Texas A&M
  • Oct. 29
    at Texas Tech
  • Nov. 5
    Kansas
  • Nov. 18
    Oklahoma St.
  • Nov. 26
    at Oklahoma
  • Dec. 3
    at Kansas St.

Last year’s prediction

I have two primary concerns as Iowa State prepares for the 2010 season. The first — and you know this is coming — is the schedule. My second issue is far less tangible: will the ball bounce Iowa State’s way in 2010, as it did a year ago? Taking this a step further, is there any chance I.S.U. sneaks up on anyone in 2010? Absolutely not. Which is a shame, as even with the question marks on defense, this year’s team is more talented than last year’s version. There’s a few question marks on defense, yes, particularly up front. Yet Rhoads and his staff hope to offset that unproven group with an improved pass rush and an experienced secondary; a solid foundation upon which to build a defense. This isn’t a bad team, just not a bowl team. After missing so terribly on the Cyclones last fall — and after seeing how Rhoads ran the show in his debut season — I’d be very happy to be wrong again.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Through nine games, 2010 was extremely similar to 2009. As in 2009, Iowa State was 5-4 with three games left to play, needing only a win for a second straight bowl bid. Unlike in 2009, however, the Cyclones couldn’t get that win, coming up a game short — and, in one of those losses, merely a play short. So the magic didn’t continue. Still, you had to be impressed with the way Rhoads continued to motivate this team, keeping confidence high despite two losses that might have derailed the season. They came in successive weeks: first, Iowa State was bombed by Utah, 68-27, in one of the ugliest losses of the 2010 season. A week later, the Cyclones were shutout in Norman, 52-0. These two ugly showing were followed up by two wins, one of which came in Austin; it was Iowa State’s first win over the Longhorns, with the pair’s last meeting ending in a 53-point defeat during the previous coaching regime. Those wins left Iowa State with those five wins, but the Cyclones couldn’t deliver late.

High point When it comes to the most impressive win, the choice is Northern Illinois. Iowa State took out the Huskies, 27-10, in the season opener; N.I.U. went on to win 10 games. When it comes to the best win, however — the win that felt the best — it’s Texas, in Austin. Another year, another great moment for Rhoads and the Cyclones.

Low point Those three straight losses to end the year. The Cyclones had several chances to take out then-No. 7 Nebraska at home but came up short, losing in overtime. A week later, the Cyclones seemed to have little in the tank against Colorado, losing by 20 points. The defense returned against Missouri with bowl eligibility on the line, holding the Tigers to 14 points, but the offense remained stagnant without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud. The Cyclones were shutout, dropping to 5-7 and staying home for bowl season.

Tidbit Looking for a magic number for the Paul Rhoads-led Cyclones? Try 24. Under Rhoads, Iowa State is 11-1 when allowing less than 24 points, 1-12 when allowing 24 or more points. The lone outliers are that season-ending loss to Missouri and a 52-38 win over Texas Tech last October. This really isn’t all that surprising, considering that one, Rhoads stresses defense; and two, the offense has been suspect. But with it looking as if the Big 12 might be shying away from being an offense-dominated league, it’s an interesting tidbit to consider.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 LB Alvin Bowen (Jacksonville), LB Tim Dobbins (Miami), CB Ellis Hobbs (Philadelphia), QB Sage Rosenfels (New York Giants), DT Ahtyba Rubin (Cleveland), C Reggie Stephens (Cincinnati), QB Seneca Wallace (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Big 12′s ill-considered coaching firings (since 1996)
1. Nebraska: Frank Solich, 2003.
2. Iowa State: Dan McCarney, 2006.
3. Kansas: Mark Mangino, 2009.
4. Texas Tech: Mike Leach, 2009.
5. Texas A&M: R.C. Slocum, 2002.

Coaching

Paul Rhoads (Missouri Western ’89), 12-13 after two 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; all of it guaranteed, of course. The faith he had in his charges, as compared to the lack of faith indicated by his predecessor was wonderful to behold. He couldn’t duplicate that feat last fall, but the I.S.U. administration should be pleased with 12 wins over two 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.

Players to watch

The light must go on for this offensive line. The group’s struggles will be under an even more pronounced spotlight with the changes that are occurring elsewhere on this offense: Iowa State must identify a new quarterback, a new running back and a new leading receiver. It is therefore a major worry to view the youth along the interior of the line, even if senior right guard Hayworth Hicks has two years of extensive game experience. If an offensive front takes its cue from the center, pencil that as a position of concern: one of three new faces will earn the starting nod. Redshirt freshman Tom Farniok currently leads the way, ahead of fellow redshirt freshman Ben Loth and JUCO transfer Sam Tuatolo.

Likewise at left guard. Ethan Tuftee, Shaban Dika and Bob Graham combine for zero game experience, and while the threesome were relatively well-regarded recruits, each is also an unknown. At least there’s experience at tackle, where massive senior Kelechi Osemele holds down the blind side with junior Brayden Burris on the right. Osemele was an all-conference pick in 2009, Burris a first-year starter in 2009, and it’s hard to say what top reserves Carter Bykowski — a converted tight end — and Kyle Lichtenberg bring to the table.

The top two receivers must be replaced. The slide in production at tight end should be particularly steep: Colin Franklin led the Cyclones with 54 catches last fall, and I’d be surprised if Kurt Hammerschmidt and Ricky Howard combine for a third of that output. Jake Williams is replaceable at receiver, but that depends on whether this year’s group can actually deliver with a measure of consistency. I’m skeptical that they can, based on what we saw a year ago. Seniors Darius Danks (29 receptions for 355 yards) and Darius Reynolds and junior Josh Lenz are the clear starters, but there’s nothing proven along the second line. This isn’t a solid bunch; one wishes that the new starting quarterback had more to work with.

Smash and dash. Smash: Jeff Woody, all 232 pounds of him. Dash: Shontrelle Johnson, all 5’9, 180 pounds of him. Combine the two and you might get the consistency of an Alexander Robinson. Apart, I wonder if either back is capable of carrying the load. Johnson’s the more intriguing prospect; he cracked the 100-yard mark against Texas Tech, ending the year with 218 yards on a team-best 6.2 yards per carry. Can his slighter frame take 175 carries? Iowa State hopes so.

It’s fitting that the defensive line, like its offensive counterpart, has issues in the middle. There simply isn’t enough proven depth to believe Iowa State will make an about-face in terms of stopping the run. The line as a whole — and the entire defense, perhaps — hinges on Stephen Ruempolhamer’s performance on the nose: that was also the case a year ago, when Iowa State finished 10th in the Big 12 in run defense. Junior Cleyon Lang and Jack McDonough, part of the line rotation last fall, step into larger roles in 2011; can they deliver?

If stopping the run is priority one, putting pressure on the quarterback is a close second. To that end, one hopes — for Iowa State’s sake — that senior Jacob Lattimer is in the starting lineup come September. He, along with Howard, the tight end, were suspended indefinitely in March for an off-field misstep; I think both are already working their way back into Rhoads’ good graces, which will help the pass rush immensely. Going off the premise that Lattimer will be in pads for Northern Iowa, Iowa State can start either Patrick Neal or Roosevelt Maggitt on the opposite side, with the loser of that battle serving as a key reserve.

The Cyclones have a pair of gamers at outside linebacker: juniors A.J. Klein and Jake Knott start on the strong and weak side, respectively, and finished one-two on the team in tackles a year ago. This pair — both were all-conference picks in 2010 — are the face of the defense and its most productive members. The question: What else can they do? Klein and Knott combined for 241 stops a year ago, doing yeoman’s work without much help up front, and I can’t see each doing more than they did last fall. So it’s up to the rest of the defense to play up to that level, if not joining Klein and Knott at least landing in the same ballpark. It’s a tall task.

Losing David Sims hurts. He really solidified the back end of the secondary, and with Iowa State’s pass rush deficiencies, I shudder at the thought of an inexperienced free safety patrolling the middle of the field. Sophomores Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield bring some game experience into 2011, with Washington the most likely replacement for his all-conference predecessor. If it’s Washington, he’ll team with senior strong safety Te’Ran Benton (58 tackles, 4 for loss).

Senior Leonard Johnson’s experience will come in handy. He’s started nearly since stepping on campus as a steal of a recruit out of Florida, first making a name for himself on kick returns but developing, over time, into one of the Big 12’s best. More so than even Klein and Knott, Iowa State simply cannot afford to lose Johnson; if he goes down, the defense will crumble. Junior Jeremy Reeves showed a flair for the big play in 2010, returning a kickoff for a score against Texas Tech and an interception for six against Northern Iowa. Depth comes in senior Anthony Young, a one-game starter last fall.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback It’s a three-horse race on paper but a two-horse race in reality, with juniors Jerome Tiller and Steele Jantz the clear leaders as we head into the summer. In an effort to motivate the entire group, I suppose, Rhoads has continued to state that youngster Jared Barnett remains in the mix; I don’t really think that’s the case, and James Cappelo’s decision to transfer out of the program does indicate to me that Rhoads has trimmed the competition down to that pair. We all remember Tiller, who was thrown into action in 2009 due to injury and led the Cyclones to a remarkable win in Lincoln over the Cornhuskers before losing at Texas A&M. Tiller also started last year’s finale but didn’t acquit himself well, hitting on only 13 of 31 attempts in the shutout defeat to Missouri. So the door is clearly open for Jantz, a JUCO transfer, to step in and claim the starting role. What do know about Jantz? Not much. He’s got a nice arm and a mohawk, which is a start, but Jantz’s experience comes on the JUCO ranks — we don’t know what we’re going to get. It’s believed that the pair could compliment each other well, in which case it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a by-committee approach under center. I’d avoid that if I’m Iowa State, and if Rhoads and his staff don’t believe in Tiller, by all means throw the job to Jantz and see what he can do.

Game(s) to watch

A loss to Northern Iowa, which is possible but not probable, would be absolutely disastrous. I could see the Cyclones looking ahead to rival Iowa the next weekend, so it’s important that Rhoads keep his team focused. The schedule is extremely difficult, so wins over Kansas and Kansas State are absolutely vital. Even then, it’s going to be a dogfight to get to six wins.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Rhoads doesn’t like the new nine-game Big 12 schedule, and I don’t blame him: Iowa State is going to find six or seven wins hard to come by without a fourth non-conference game. Still, that’s life, for better or worse, and his Cyclones need to embrace the challenge, not think of what could have been. I have no doubt they will. This is a resilient bunch, one still composed of plenty of the previous regime’s recruits, and they’ve bounced back wonderfully over the last two seasons. 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. The quarterback situation is muddled, and I fear that a two-man split would not be a wise move. The offensive line is weak along the interior and thin at tackle. The receiver corps is spotty and the backfield unproven. The question marks on defense revolve wholly around the line, both in stopping the run and getting to the quarterback. The latter would aid the secondary immensely, but I don’t see potential game-changers at end or inside. 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.

Dream season The Cyclones get to six wins after beating Kansas on Nov. 5 and add an upset down the stretch to finish 8-4, 5-4 in the Big 12. Clearly, that suggests that the Cy-Hawk Trophy returns to Ames.

Nightmare season A loss to Northern Iowa is followed by an ugly loss to Iowa, which is followed by eight more losses the rest of the way: 2-10, 2-7.

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 Clone Chronicles. As always, send me your favorite blogs, message boards and beat reporters yearning to be included in this section.

Word Count

Through 33 teams 87,983.

Up Next

Who is No. 87? The stadium at tomorrow’s university is named after a legendary coach who, after concluding his on-field career, taught at the university’s law school until shortly before his death.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Burnt Orange says:

    Colorado is next. Fred Folsom was a football coach, baseball coach, practicing attorney and law professor.

  2. Jer says:

    Colorado is next.

  3. Alex Payne says:

    Fred Folsom? Coach with around an .800 winning percentage and practicing lawyer?

    Colorado could be up next.

  4. M Meyer says:

    Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, because both the Solich and McCarney firings were unjustifiable, but I can’t help but think that Iowa State was more delusional in what kind of coach they believed they could attract than Nebraska.

  5. Jason Foster says:

    I wouldn’t say that R.C. Slocum’s firing was ill-considered taking into account his post-1998 record against Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma, but his replacement’s hiring sure was.

  6. Dr. Klahn says:

    The Countdown maybe the only preseason poll that does not have WSU finishing last in the Pac12. No doubt that the Cougs will be much improved but I found it hard to decide who replaces them at the bottom.

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