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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

Paul Rhoads is so proud of this preview. But I'll be doing push-ups for the low ranking.

As legend has it, first-year Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads greeted his new charges with a guarantee: we will win a bowl game. No, not eventually: in 2009. Scratch that. It’s not a legend; it’s the truth. As Iowa State running back Alexander Robinson later recounted to the Des Moines Register:

“What he said isn’t just a bunch of bull,” (said Robinson). “That’s exactly what he said. He said he was proud to be our coach, but he also said that we not only would play to be in a bowl game, but to win a bowl game. Those were the first words out of his mouth the first time he got us all together as a team, and I am telling you the truth.”

So it’s not a legend. It’s simply legendary. From 10 consecutive losses to end 2008 — under Gene Chizik, who couldn’t cut it in Ames — to seven wins in 2009, one of which came in bowl play. All of it guaranteed. What about tomorrow’s Powerball numbers, coach?

Big 12, North

Ames, Ia.


Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 112

2009 record
(7-6, 3-5)

Last year’s

No. 61

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Northern Illinois
  • Sept. 11
    at Iowa
  • Sept. 18
    Kansas St. (in Kansas City, Mo.)
  • Sept. 25
    Northern Iowa
  • Oct. 2
    Texas Tech
  • Oct. 9
  • Oct. 16
    at Oklahoma
  • Oct. 23
    at Texas
  • Oct. 30
  • Nov. 6
  • Nov. 13
    at Colorado
  • Nov. 20

Last year’s prediction

Obviously, playing in the nation’s toughest conference – sorry SEC – is not a good thing for this program. For 2009, I predict the Cyclones to finish again in the bottom of the North division: 2-10 or 3-9, depending on their non-conference success. All right, enough doom and gloom. I think even the most optimistic Cyclones fan is expecting this team to struggle, but are better times on the horizon? It will be a tough road, but having an experienced coach with Iowa ties is the best move the I.S.U. administration could have made, especially when considering the difficult situation it was in.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Has a seven-win season ever felt so good? The Cyclones shocked the Big 12 — shocked the country, if it was paying attention — in making a five-win improvement over a disastrous 2008, tying Washington for the largest improvement in the country. How did Iowa State do it? It was a three-pronged attack: confidence, luck and a helpful schedule. While the Cyclones faced in-state rival Iowa in non-conference play, the rest of the non-Big 12 slate featured North Dakota State, Kent State and Army; they had three wins, topping last year’s mark, before October. I.S.U. also had some breaks go its way: atypically butterfingered Nebraska sloppily turned the ball over eight times, allowing the Cyclones to take an ugly 9-7 road win. Most importantly, however, was the belief Rhoads instilled in this formerly beaten-down team: imagine, a coach who actually believes in his team. What a concept, am I right?

High point So what if Nebraska turned the ball over those eight times? Iowa State’s 9-7 road win, its first in Lincoln since 1977, led to one of the best moments of the 2009 season. A 17-10 victory over Colorado on Nov. 14 assured the Cyclones of a bowl appearance.

Low point A 32-point loss to rival Iowa was Iowa State’s largest margin of defeat in the series since dropping a 63-30 affair in 1997. Of Iowa State’s five Big 12 setbacks, none hurt worse than a 24-23 loss to Kansas State on Oct. 3; the Cyclones drove 64 yards in 8 plays to draw within a single point with 32 seconds remaining, but the potential game-tying P.A.T. was blocked by the Wildcats. Ouch.

Tidbit Bend, but don’t break on defense. How is this done? When you allow 250.2 yards passing per game and 23 touchdowns, but make 15 interceptions, as I.S.U. did in 2009. When you give up 165.7 yards per game on the ground, but offset that by forcing 32 fumbles — an awesome number — recovering 17. When you lose the time of possession battle, but allow opponents to convert less than 40 percent of their third down opportunities. When the opposition moves into your red zone a whopping 49 times but score only 67 percent of the time, scoring touchdowns only 55 percent of the time. It’s when you allow 415.9 yards per game — 99th nationally — and 22 first downs per game — 101st nationally — but allow only 21.8 points per game — 34th nationally. All of which Iowa State did in 2009.

Tidbit (unexpected edition) As if winning in Lincoln isn’t tough enough, Iowa State did so without its starting quarterback and running back. The Cyclones earned the hard-fought win with a freshman quarterback — making his first career start, no less — not only leading the team in passing, obviously, but also rushing: Jerome Tiller, 9 of 19 for 102 yards and a score through the air, added 65 yards on 20 carries on the ground.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 LB Alvin Bowens (Washington), LB Tim Dobbins (Miami), WR Marquis Hamilton (Minnesota), DE Reggie Hayward (Jacksonville), CB Ellis Hobbs (Philadelphia), QB Sage Rosenfels (Minnesota Vikings), DT Ahtyba Rubin (Cleveland), OG Reggie Stephens (Cincinnati), QB Seneca Wallace (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Books set in Iowa
1. “A Thousand Acres,” by Jane Smiley.
2. “The World According to Garp,” by John Irving.
3. “Shoeless Joe,” by W.P. Kinsella.
4. “Jesus’ Son,” by Denis Johnson.
5. “Daughter of the Middle Border,” by Hamlin Garland.


Paul Rhoads (Missouri Western ’89), 7-6 after one season 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, Gene Chizik, was wonderful to behold. 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. Over his eight years with the Panthers, 14 of his players earned first-team all-Big East honors. Like Chizik 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. After last season, the university would be wise to reciprocate the feeling.

Players to watch

Nothing like a senior quarterback. Nothing like a senior quarterback entering his third year in the starting lineup, and one who for the first time since his redshirt freshman season will serve in the system for the second consecutive year. Perhaps this combination of growing experience — in terms of years and in the scheme — will allow Austen Arnaud to blossom in his final season in Ames. If hasn’t always been pretty for Arnaud, who has alternated flashes of all-conference ability with confounding inconsistency. Some of his struggles, of course, can be tied back to injuries; he missed two October games last fall, and never regained his early touch over the last four games of the year. If healthy, Arnaud presents Big 12 opposition with a dangerous dual-threat option: sometimes dangerous as a passer, he added 561 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground as a junior. Often maligned, Arnaud can feel secure in knowing he’s Iowa State’s best option; even if sophomore Jerome Tiller showed impressive composure in winning in Lincoln last fall, this is unquestionably Arnaud’s job.

Few running backs in the Big 12 get as little respect as senior Alexander Robinson, who rushed for 1,195 yards in 12 games last fall despite, like his quarterback, playing through pain. Robinson did earn honorable mention all-Big 12 honors, to be fair, but few backs meant more to an offense than did the senior, who added 17 receptions for 261 yards — a team-best 15.4 yards per catch — through the air. Robinson is capable of an even greater performance in 2010 if he can stay healthy. Battling to be his reserve are sophomore Beau Blakenship and former Florida transfer Bo Williams, among others, though keep on an eye on incoming freshman Shontrelle Johnson, who turned a scholarship from those Gators  — to play in the secondary — to try his hand at running back for the Cyclones.

The offensive line already knew it would be without all-conference center Reggie Stephens, gone to graduation. The loss of right guard Scott Haughton to academics was unexpected, and equally troubling. Haughton had started the last 17 games for the Cyclones, really coming into his own on the strong side of the line as a sophomore. His likely replacement, fellow junior Hayworth Hicks, has size — and then some — as does sophomore Drew Davis; yet neither brings the experience, nor the potential, of Haughton. It’s not all bad news up front, however. The Cyclones are strong at left tackle, where Kelechi Osemele should challenge for all-conference accolades. Senior Ben Lamaak, a three-year starter all along the line, moves from guard to center, where he’ll replace Stephens. Left guard Alex Alvarez, a senior, could double at center

The receiver corps is deep, even if the Cyclones lack a go-to target. Typical of this team’s hard-hat mentality, one could say. One could also say it’s due to Iowa State wide-open attack, which led to 11 different receivers making at least one grab a year ago. Expect more of the same in 2010, though the Cyclones will again rely upon senior Jake Williams and junior Darius Darks to do much of the heavy lifting. Williams leads all returning pass-catchers with 36 receptions and 403 yards receiving last fall, a season highlighted by his eventual game-winning touchdown grab against Nebraska. After setting an I.S.U. rookie record with 49 grabs in 2008, Darks made only 28 grabs (for 303 yards) last fall; this was due to injury, as Darks, fully healthy, rebounded to make 21 catches over the final five games of the year. I.S.U. will also welcome back junior Darius Reynolds from injury — hopefully. After being hurt four games into 2009, he was again limited by injuries during the spring.

The Iowa State defense has some holes to fill, particularly in its front seven. The defensive line returns end Rashawn Parker, who landed a medical hardship year from the N.C.A.A., but will sorely miss the production of tackle Christopher Lyle, who paced the team in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (5). While a healthy Parker will help matters, it’s worth noting that the rest of the I.S.U. defense — outside of Lyle — combined for only 11 sacks. Parker had two sacks through four games, but a knee injury cost him the rest of the year; he’s expected to be back in time for the season opener, though Parker might not return to 100 percent until well into his final season. His replacement last fall, Patrick Neal, is steady, not spectacular: his 27 tackles in 2009 leads all returning linemen. The Cyclones return three experienced performers on the interior of the line: senior Austin Alburtis made eight starts on the nose last fall, while Bailey Johnson and Stephen Ruempolhamer were key cogs in the rotation. Jake McDonough, a sophomore, will also factor into the mix.

Things are better in the secondary. Leonard Johnson and Ter’ran Benton, both juniors, are good Big 12 cornerback. Johnson might be better than just good: a fixture in the starting lineup since his freshman season, Johnson has all-conference talent. Benton deserves all of our respect for playing the Nebraska game — playing pretty well, I might add — on a broken leg. Now fully healthy, Benton might have to outplay JUCO recruit Anthony Young to keep his job. If Johnson’s not the leader of the secondary, it’s senior strong safety David Sims. The JUCO transfer was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year last fall, when he made 88 tackles, fourth on the team, and a team-best five interception. The Cyclones face a hole at free safety following the departure of three-year starter James Smith. Senior Michael O’Connell, who made 43 tackles and a pick in 2009, will be his replacement.

Position battles to watch

Coney Island's Cyclone. The linebacker corps: up, then down. What a roller coaster.

Linebacker No position will face more turnover: Iowa State must replace starters Jesse Smith — with his 308 career tackles — Josh Raven and Fred Garrin. There will be a drop-off in 2010. The good news here is that two of three potential starters will be multiple-year fixtures on the outside: sophomores A.J. Klein and Jack Knott might have played sparingly last fall, but the general consensus is that each is entering the first of three seasons in the starting lineup. As true freshmen, Klein pitched in for 23 tackles as one the unit’s leading reserves; Knott added another 17 stops. Senior Matt Tau’fo’ou — relax, spell check — is the leading contender to man the middle linebacker spot, but as Iowa State did a season ago, expect the Cyclones to spend a large percentage of their snaps in a two-linebacker set, adding a fifth defensive back to counter the Big 12′s wide-open passing attacks. Depth at linebacker is a concern, as the unit has only two additional non-freshman scholarship players: junior Jacob Lattimer and sophomore Kevin Hamlin; Lattimer is expected to play behind Klein on the strong side, and Hamlin on the weak side. It’s not a proven group, to be sure. Yet with Klein and Knott, the Cyclones have two long-term starters as the foundation to an improved corps over the next handful of seasons.

Game(s) to watch

As always, the battle for the Cy-Hawk trophy against Iowa. While the Hawkeyes get all the love, I.S.U. has won seven of its last 12 against its in-state rival. In terms of Big 12 play, Iowa State will need to perform well against its North division brethren in order to reach six wins: how the Cyclones fare against Kansas State, Kansas and Colorado will dictate the team’s final record.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I have two primary concerns as Iowa State prepares for the 2010 season. The first — and you know this is coming — is the schedule. Check out this four-game stretch to open October: Texas Tech and Utah at home, Texas and Oklahoma on the road. My goodness. I don’t think any team in the country would leave that period unscathed, and I don’t think Iowa State will leave with more than a single win; a 1-3 mark would be terrific, in fact. My second issue is far less tangible: will the ball bounce Iowa State’s way in 2010, as it did a year ago? Will Nebraska again turn the ball over eight times when it visits Ames in November? 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 senior quarterback under center, a 1,000-yard runner in the backfield and a solid offensive line. 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.

Dream season More comeuppance for the Countdown: 8-4, 5-3 in the Big 12, and back in bowl play.

Nightmare season The tough schedule proves too difficult to overcome, as Rhoads and the Cyclones slide back to 3-9, 1-7 in conference action.

In case you were wondering

Where do Iowa State fans congregate? There are three good Iowa State fan sites: Cyclone Fanatic, Cyclone 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.

Up Next

Who is No. 87? Our next school’s president should be familiar with some of Pre-Snap Read’s local readers: he was SUNY-Oswego’s president from 1988-96 and the interim provost of the entire SUNY system from 1995-96.

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  1. Colin D. says:

    The pictured Cyclone is actually the old Riverside Cyclone (now just “Cyclone”) at Six Flags New England in Agawam, MA. Partial credit awarded.

    Paul: Damn. I’ll take the partial credit. You’re going to be my go-to guy for all roller coaster-related questions.

  2. Steve says:

    #87 is San Diego St

  3. Snowedin'Bama says:

    While it may be a tough schedule, I’ll be happy to give love to the Cyclones. Rhoads (I’ll ignore his one year at the Barn) has shown himself to be of such character, it’s hard to not be on his side. Unlike Chizik, he’s already shown that ISU is more than a stop to the next call.

    Good call on mentioning Clone Chronicles. Any SB Nation blog should get first mention, though, as they give a great view into the entire fan community, with ample quality and loyalty put first.

  4. drop and give me 20

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