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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Iowa State (6-7, 3-6)

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, brought in 15 four-star recruits on last Wednesday’s national signing day alone. The program has not finished better than second-to-last in the Big 12 team recruiting rankings since 2004. Its two primary quarterbacks, Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett, combined for four scholarship offers when each entered the recruiting pool; half came from Iowa State, and for Jantz, it was the Cyclones or no one. Little talent, little production, 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.

Minus coaching. And an underdog mentality tinged with a devil-may-care attitude, one that leads Paul Rhoads, who is finally getting the respect and admiration he deserves, to go for two when down a point in overtime to big, bad Nebraska in 2010. That specific play didn’t work, but it encapsulated Iowa State football as played under Rhoads and his staff.

The Cyclones seem to engage their 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?

When it comes to a full season, Iowa State’s blueprint for success follows a four-point plan. When run correctly, it leaves the Cyclones teetering on the edge of bowl eligibility in mid-October; by the final game of the regular season, they should have already clinched a bowl berth. The plan:

1. Escape from September. In 2011, that meant needing a touchdown with less than a minute left to beat Northern Iowa, 20-19. Two weeks later, the Cyclones slipped past Connecticut, 24-20, offsetting early turnovers and a queasy defense with a strong second half. In 2009, Rhoads’ bunch went 3-1 in September.

2. Fall flat. After a perfect start to 2011, the Cyclones bottomed out with a four-game losing streak to start conference play. In 2009, Iowa State opened October with losses to Kansas State and Kansas by a combined six points. These losses are key to Iowa State’s development; the Cyclones need to fall off the map before climbing back into the bowl picture.

3. Use a bad team. After throwing away the goodwill it accumulated outside of conference play — dropping to or below .500 after a strong start — Iowa State needs a Big 12 patsy to help it get back in the win column. In 2009, that was Baylor. The Bears, playing without Robert Griffin III, who hurt his knee two weeks before, couldn’t muster enough offense in a 24-10 Iowa State victory. In 2011, the patsy was Texas Tech, though the fact that the Red Raiders were paper tigers had yet to register; the Red Raiders were ranked No. 20 when Iowa State won, 41-7, in Lubbock.

4. Beat a team it shouldn’t. Prior to Oct. 24, 2009, Iowa State hadn’t won a game in Lincoln since 1977. The Cyclones’ 9-7 win — one of the ugliest wins in recent college football history — was the impetus behind the team’s bowl run in Rhoads’ debut season. This past November, Iowa State upended then-No. 2 Oklahoma State in overtime, 37-31, dealing a fatal bowl to the Cowboys’ national title hopes. That victory pushed Iowa State’s record to 6-4, and the rest is history.

So how does Iowa State win games when it recruits worse than any team in the Big 12, gets dangerously little on the offensive side of the ball and is prone to giving up points, points and more points in bunches to the Big 12’s elite? By sticking to the script: Iowa State never plays outside itself, but trusts that a slow and steady pace will eventually lead to bowl play.

Coaching also helps, and that the university locked up Rhoads for the foreseeable future bodes well for the program’s own future. Rhoads, two games under .500 through three years, owns the best start by an Iowa State head coach since Clay Stapleton went 18-12 from 1958-60.

Season grade: B Fast-forward a decade. What are the five things all 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. 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.

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 in 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.

Offensive M.V.P. Let’s split the award between two linemen, Kelechi Osmele and Hayworth Hicks, Iowa State’s only two all-conference picks on the offensive side of the ball. We know Osmele, the wide-bodied senior who began to be appreciated on a national level after multiple seasons starring on the Cyclones’ offensive front. Hicks’ development was a terrific development for Iowa State; it gave the offense a power presence at left tackle, Osmele, and, in Hicks, an equally large run blocker on the strong side. Additional bonus points go to sophomore running back James White, who finished with a team-best 743 yards rushing and 8 scores.

Defensive M.V.P. What was the best linebacker pairing in the Big 12? Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho of Texas? Oklahoma’s Travis Lewis along with any one of Oklahoma’s other linebackers? Nope and nope, though Lewis was the most talented player at the position in the Big 12. The best linebacker pairing in the conference was Iowa State’s duo of A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, with Klein, thanks in part to his team-leading 117 tackles, named the conference’s co-defensive player of the year. Gamers, these two, and fun to watch go to work every Saturday. The best news? Both will be back in 2012.

Stock watch Why should Iowa State go anywhere? The Big 12 will be weaker in 2012. Oklahoma State won’t be as good. Baylor will take a step back. Texas and Oklahoma might improve, but there’s absolutely no reason why the Cyclones can’t return to bowl play this fall. Of course, this bowl quest hinges on Iowa State’s own ability to get more from the quarterback position, which needs improvement, as well as the offense as a whole. Are the Cyclones Big 12 contenders? Not really – though I suppose that every team in the Big 12 is a contender, based on the meaning of the word. Are the Cyclones national title contenders? Please. This is merely a very well-coached, technically-sound football team that does enough every fall to put itself in the mix for a bowl berth in November. I see no reason why that should change in 2012.

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  1. Burnt Orange says:

    I really like Jared Barnett at qb. Thought it was a mistake to yank him so early in the bowl game. His performance against Oklahoma State was just spectacular – particularly for a freshman. Can some Cyclone fan explain Rhode’s thinking on this position ? I think you have your quarterback for the next three seasons.

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