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1. Now or never
Paul Rhoads is playing the long game. Quite a few of his better players are young, and he's not exactly on a win-or-else hot seat. But with Big 12 contenders Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma visiting Ames, it's not a bad idea to score another upset and remind locals why he became so popular in the first place.
Honestly, I expect another down year. I'm optimistic about the offense, but a) I'll be more optimistic about the offense in 2015, and b) I'm terrified for this defense. Perhaps there's more upside than there has been. But it will probably take a year to realize potential.
You can survive in Ames winning six games a year, especially if some of those wins are memorable.
Rhoads earned a reputation as a high-caliber motivator; he went 24-27 in his first four seasons, but he made the wins count. He beat Iowa twice, won at Texas and Nebraska, and knocked Oklahoma State out of the 2011 BCS Championship with a 37-31 late-November win. His Cyclones reached three bowls and scared the daylights out of the fan bases of every good team on the schedule, even if that fear was warranted less often than not.
As I always say, however, hard jobs remain hard. And when your recruiting never comes around -- when you're still pulling in top-70 classes while most in your league are in the top 40 -- it will catch up to you. Rhoads has never been able to build a deep squad, and in 2014, that bit him like never before. His Cyclones were hit hard by injuries, and the underbelly was exposed, especially on defense. After three straight top-50 Def. S&P+ finishes between 2010-12, ISU disintegrated to 115th.
In last year's preview, I mentioned that I had hope for the offense in 2015. That remains the case; new coordinator Mangino managed to wrangle improvement despite injuries, and now he returns his quarterback, some exciting receivers, and a strong line. After years of holding ISU back, there's a path to success for the offense.
And now the defense needs a rebuild. Good injuries luck and some JUCO transfers could help to stabilize the Cyclones, but we're dealing with ifs and coulds. Relying on two JUCOs in particular to plug a gaping hole in run D, for instance, could work, but it usually doesn't.
It's probably now or never for Rhoads in Ames. The offense should move forward again, and the defense brings in some newcomers and, for now at least, gets healthy.
After slipping to 92nd in the F/+ rankings, the Cyclones should rebound. But if they don't, hope is all but lost. And if they don't at least crawl back into the 70s, it's hard to envision a second dawn in the Rhoads era.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 92|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|30-Aug||North Dakota State||N/A||14-34||L||5%||-37.5||1%|
|4-Oct||at Oklahoma State||75||20-37||L||39%||-6.6||20%|
|Points Per Game||23.2||99||38.8||118|
2. Minimal upset karma
There are two ways to look at Iowa State's 2014.
Option 1: injuries broke the Cyclones, dragging them from below average to awful.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 7 games): 43% (~top 75 | record: 2-5)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 5 games): 23% (~top 100 | record: 0-5)
This would make sense. For most teams (especially those without superior talent), continuity is vital, and ISU had none. Quarterback Sam B. Richardson missed time with injury, only one running back played in all 12 games, and after losing its 2013 leader to injury in the preseason, the receiving corps only managed to keep two players on the field for all 12 games. Meanwhile, the back seven of the defense was shuffling personnel from the start of the season to the end.
When your squad is thin, you will give out when you face that level of in-season turnover.
Option 2: ISU had nothing to offer against strong teams.
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 25): 15% (avg. score: Opp 54, ISU 15)
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. No. 31-plus): 42% (avg. score: Opp 34, ISU 26)
For the third time in four years, ISU took down Iowa and nearly did the same to a solid Kansas State despite getting outgained by 152 yards. But the upset karma has been just about tapped. The Cyclones needed a punt return score and some KSU miscues in scoring opportunities to stay close to the Wildcats, and against teams better than KSU, there was no hope. The run defense was dismal, and nothing else was good enough to pick up the slack.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.7%||75||Succ. Rt. +||108.0||40|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.1||34||Def. FP+||103.0||33|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||78||Redzone S&P+||111.1||38|
|Q1 Rk||71||1st Down Rk||101|
|Q2 Rk||83||2nd Down Rk||104|
|Q3 Rk||92||3rd Down Rk||105|
3. Mangino had an impact on efficiency
It was one of those storylines that TV announcers crave. You have to fill more than three hours in a television broadcast, and there's a 30-second break between every play. (Well, in the Big 12, it's probably not 30 seconds, but still.) You're going to end up falling back on narratives, and for ISU, the narrative was "Mangino's back, and he's saving the ISU offense!"
Mangino, Kansas' head coach the last time the Jayhawks were anything but awful, returned to the FBS ranks after a five-year absence. And basically every time the offense made a good play, Mangino's presence was the first thing that got mentioned. (The KSU game was particularly funny; ISU averaged 4.6 yards per play and scored on three of 11 possessions, but Mangino seemed to get mentioned more than Rhoads on the broadcast.)
Announcers may have jumped the gun (and hey, it's more fun to talk about him than the ISU defense), but Mangino had an impact. Despite quarterback Richardson again dealing with injuries late in the season, and despite constant uncertainty when it came to who would be available to run or catch, the Cyclones' efficiency numbers improved. ISU moved from 64th to 40th in Success Rate+, staying ahead of the chains with Mangino's patented, Todd Reesing-esque dink-and-dunk style, and even figuring out ways to catch back up once in passing downs situations. And they again finished drives pretty well to boot.
With a lot returning in the passing game and on the offensive line, we can assume another rather efficient ISU offense even if the running back position remains in flux.
But there's no evidence that the Cyclones will do any better from a big-play perspective. ISU ranked 95th in IsoPPP+ in both 2013 and 2014 and produced just 16 gains of 30-plus yards last year, 118th in the country. Efficiency is any offense's lifeblood, but big plays save you from having to play without error. ISU had to move methodically to score, and eventually mistakes derailed drives.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Sam Richardson||6'2, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8083||254||451||2669||18||9||56.3%||26||5.5%||5.2|
|Grant Rohach||6'2, 212||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8621||27||54||283||2||1||50.0%||4||6.9%||4.3|
|Joel Lanning||6'2, 232||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8120|
|Dominic DeLira||6'1, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8060|
|Sam Richardson||QB||6'2, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8083||99||589||3||5.9||3.8||56.6%||4||1|
|Tyler Brown||RB||5'11, 186||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8312||24||109||0||4.5||3.5||37.5%||0||0|
|Grant Rohach||QB||6'2, 212||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8621||4||21||0||5.3||4.5||25.0%||2||1|
|Mike Warren||RB||6'0, 196||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8593|
|Joshua Thomas||RB||5'11, 230||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8528|
|Sheldon Croney||RB||5'11, 210||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8189|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Allen Lazard||WR-X||6'5, 218||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9616||93||46||592||49.5%||19.0%||58.1%||6.4||4||6.4||69.4|
|Quenton Bundrage (2013)||WR-F||6'2, 192||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8238||91||48||673||52.7%||24.1%||52.5%||7.4||27||7.0||83.3|
|D'Vario Montgomery||WR-Z||6'6, 236||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9274||67||44||605||65.7%||13.7%||62.7%||9.0||75||9.1||70.9|
|Dondre Daley||WR-Z||6'2, 188||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8116||41||21||208||51.2%||8.4%||43.9%||5.1||-58||4.9||24.4|
|Jauan Wesley||WR-F||5'11, 181||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8391||20||10||107||50.0%||4.1%||70.0%||5.4||-20||6.3||12.5|
|Ben Boesen||TE||6'6, 241||Sr.||NR||NR||3||0||0||0.0%||0.6%||66.7%||0.0||-4||0.0||0.0|
|Quan West||TE||6'4, 233||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8383||2||0||0||0.0%||0.4%||50.0%||0.0||-3||0.0||0.0|
|Brandon Harris||WR||6'0, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7998|
|Justin Chandler||TE||6'4, 272||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Cole Anderson||TE||6'4, 275||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8352|
|Darius Lee-Campbell||WR||6'2, 214||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8230|
|Denver Johnson||WR||6'3, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8357|
4. Still need playmakers
That Richardson broke even was, in and of itself, an accomplishment. He was battling injuries, his run game was mostly ineffective (combined, only 31 of carries by Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy gained at least five yards), and his most proven receiver, Quenton Bundrage, was on the sideline in street clothes.
Throwing primarily to freshmen and sophomores, frequently on second- or third-and-long, Richardson managed to improve his completion rate from 55 percent to 56.3, cut his interception rate from 3.2 percent to 2, and keep his meager per-attempt average above 5 yards. These aren't amazing numbers, but again, he got no help from big plays.
There might not be much hope at running back, where sophomore Tyler Brown (who did lead ISU backs in efficiency) is the only returnee with any experience. But between Bundrage's return and the further development of sophomore Allen Lazard (the rare blue-chipper on the roster) and big D'Vario Montgomery, you can talk yourself into ISU again crafting a physical short passing game.
And if you've got three big options, you might be able to spring one deep occasionally. Lazard averaged 14.5 yards per catch over the first half of 2014 before slowing, and Bundrage and Montgomery each approached that same average in their respective last seasons. There's potential for more balance between efficiency and explosiveness.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Daniel Burton||RG||6'6, 330||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8279||20|
|Jamison Lalk||C||6'6, 311||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8065||19|
|Brock Dagel||RT||6'8, 306||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8081||15|
|Jake Campos||LT||6'8, 295||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8918||11|
|Oni Omoile||LG||6'3, 307||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR||10|
|Jacob Dunning||OL||6'5, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7759||1|
|Wendell Taiese||LG||6'6, 354||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8215||0|
|Nick Fett||RT||6'7, 313||Jr.||NR||NR||0|
|Nick Severs||C||6'4, 279||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8256||0|
|Shawn Curtis||LT||6'5, 293||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8382||0|
|Jacob Homa||OL||6'4, 290||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8249||0|
|Ryan Glenn||RG||6'4, 301||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8047||0|
|Kory Kodanko||OL||6'5, 316||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8241|
|Patrick Scoggins||RG||6'1, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7957|
|Jaypee Philbert||OL||6'4, 305||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8528|
|Julian Good-Jones||OL||6'5, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8513|
|Bryce Meeker||OL||6'5, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8306|
5. The line is ready
First things first: Mangino and Richardson helped the line quite a bit. Richardson is an efficient scrambler who helped ISU's run blocking stats, and the quick passing game kept sacks low on standard downs. So while ranking 30th in Adj. Line Yards and 62nd in Adj. Sack Rate seems nice, the line wasn't responsible for all of the positivity. Plus, ISU stunk in short-yardage and didn't pick up blitzes very well.
So maybe I'm overestimating the line. But it seems like there's quite a bit to like. Joshua Brown seemed reasonably capable of taking advantage of his blocks, and he'll be running behind some hosses. The six returnees with starting experience average 6'6, 308; both tackles are at least 6'8, and the top three returning guards average 330. Size isn't everything, but at the least, this unit isn't a weakness.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||52.3%||128||Succ. Rt. +||84.0||121|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.5||118||Off. FP+||97.0||99|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.9||110||Redzone S&P+||92.3||94|
|Q1 Rk||115||1st Down Rk||119|
|Q2 Rk||102||2nd Down Rk||115|
|Q3 Rk||102||3rd Down Rk||74|
6. Bend and break
There's nothing sadder than a defense that is decent on passing downs but can't force any. ISU had an okay pass rush and a secondary with up to five players capable of making plays on the ball. But run defense was such a nightmare that it forced even the secondary to remain passive on standard downs. Opponents were free to move via ground or air on first-and-10, and there wasn't much the Cyclones could do about it.
These struggles made sense, really. ISU had to completely rebuild after losing seven of 11 contributors from 2013. End Cory Morrissey, just about the only major contributor returning up front, had a nice year as a pass rusher, but a new set of tackles made almost no plays and struggled to occupy blockers. And the back seven, tasked with picking up the slack, couldn't keep the same seven players on the field.
That we can explain ISU's struggles might be encouraging. Now you've got experience (and a little bit of new blood) up front, and your back seven might be able to stay healthy. That alone should get ISU back into the double digits in the Def. S&P+ rankings. But there still has to be talent here, and outside of the secondary, it's difficult to feel too confident in its existence.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Trent Taylor||DE||6'2, 257||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8840||12||27.5||3.5%||5.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dale Pierson||DE||6'2, 246||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8163||12||24.0||3.1%||4.5||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Mitchell Meyers||DT||6'4, 260||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8298||12||23.0||3.0%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius White||DE||6'1, 251||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7996||12||12.0||1.5%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Vernell Trent||NG||6'3, 289||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8094||12||7.5||1.0%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Devlyn Cousin||DT||6'4, 302||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7984||9||7.0||0.9%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Robby Garcia||DT||6'4, 281||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7888||12||5.5||0.7%||1.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Pierre Aka||DT||6'4, 313||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8526||7||4.0||0.5%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Gabe Luna||DE||6'2, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8041|
|Terry Ayeni||DT||6'2, 278||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8474|
|J.D. Waggoner||DE||6'3, 245||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8029|
|Demond Tucker||DT||6'0, 287||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8722|
|Bobby Leath||DT||6'3, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8463|
|De'Amontae Jackson||DT||6'0, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8590|
|Seth Nerness||DE||6'4, 235||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8211|
7. No pressure, new guys
Demond Tucker talks a big game and, by ISU standards, brings quite a high recruiting ranking to Ames. The bowling ball-shaped JUCO transfer was the story of spring ball, bringing a boost of energy.
If Tucker and fellow JUCO Bobby Leath are able to supplement the two-deep, then the Cyclones' biggest 2014 issue could be somewhat rectified. ISU got almost nothing from its tackles and must now replace its best end. The presence of Tucker and Leath could allow for ISU to use only the best tackle or two from last year's rotation -- Mitchell Meyers, Vernell Trent, Robby Garcia, Pierre Aka.
Getting more from the tackles is a requirement not only because it's hard to have a good defense without it, but also because the linebacking corps is retooling. Luke Knott returns, and Kane Seeley and Brian Mills got more experience last year than expected, but Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens were rare playmakers for this front seven, and they're gone.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Luke Knott||WLB||6'1, 221||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8056||12||55.5||7.2%||3.5||0.0||1||0||0||0|
|Kane Seeley||MLB||6'2, 241||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7759||12||38.0||4.9%||1.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Brian Mills||WLB||5'10, 233||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7926||12||23.0||3.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Levi Peters (2013)||WLB||5'11, 213||Jr.||NR||NR||12||12.5||1.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Jordan Harris||MLB||6'0, 233||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7852|
|Reggan Northrup||SLB||6'1, 191||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8131|
|Sam Seonbuchner||LB||6'2, 236||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8272|
|Bobby McMillen||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8389|
|Marcel Spears||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8244|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kamari Cotton-Moya||FS||6'1, 194||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8076||12||66.0||8.5%||2||0||0||8||0||0|
|Nigel Tribune||CB||5'11, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8095||11||56.5||7.3%||2||0||3||13||0||0|
|Sam E. Richardson||CB||5'8, 189||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8300||12||52.5||6.8%||1.5||0||4||6||0||0|
|Kenneth Lynn||CB||5'10, 168||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8407||12||28.0||3.6%||3.5||0||0||10||0||0|
|Qujuan Floyd||SS||6'0, 202||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8156||11||27.5||3.5%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darian Cotton||SS||5'11, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8259||12||19.5||2.5%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Josh Jahlas||DB||6'2, 203||Jr.||NR||NR||11||7.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Matt Swoyer||DB||5'11, 185||Jr.||NR||NR||4||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brian Peavy||CB||5'9, 184||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8094|
|Jarnor Jones||NB||6'3, 203||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8000|
|Jomal Wiltz||CB||5'10, 174||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7833|
|Mike Johnson||DB||5'11, 182||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8578|
|Stephon Brown||DB||6'0, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8020|
8. Just give the secondary a little help
I don't want to overstate the quality in the secondary; ISU gave up 130 passes of at least 10 yards (109th in the country) and 16 of 40-plus (122nd), after all. But most of the damage was done on standard downs, when even the secondary was preoccupied with the run. On passing downs, with just a decent pass rush, the secondary was able to prevent big plays and get hands on passes.
The top four returnees (safety Kamari Cotton-Moya and corners Nigel Tribune, Sam E. Richardson, and Kenneth Lynn) combined for nine tackles for loss, seven picks, and 37 break-ups, a damn near heroic effort given the defensive deficiencies.
This isn't a physically imposing unit; the top three corners average just 5'10, 182. But there's experience, and JUCO transfers Jarnor Jones and Jomal Wiltz and mid-three-star freshman Mike Johnson could contribute early. The two-deep in the secondary should be the least of ISU's concerns. If the run numbers improve, the pass numbers almost certainly will, too.
|Colin Downing||5'11, 190||So.||69||39.4||0||29||13||60.9%|
|Holden Kramer||6'3, 184||So.||7||29.9||0||3||7||142.9%|
|Cole Netten||6'1, 219||Jr.||56||61.5||13||3||23.2%|
|Cole Netten||6'1, 219||Jr.||35-35||9-10||90.0%||2-4||50.0%|
|Special Teams F/+||62|
|Field Goal Efficiency||50|
|Punt Return Efficiency||61|
|Kick Return Efficiency||109|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||128|
9. Coffin corner experts
ISU's special teams unit was neither a strength nor a weakness in 2014 -- solid kicks were offset by mostly nonexistent returns. (Jarvis West's punt return score against Kansas State was just about the only bright spot.) West and Aaron Wimberly are gone, which means a complete reset in returns (maybe not a bad thing), but the legs will again be a strength.
Cole Netten emerged as a strong kicker, and the punter combination of freshmen Colin Downing and Holden Kramer was outstanding. Nearly half of Downing's punts were fair caught, and all seven of Kramer's punts were stopped inside the 20. That's a severe field position weapon to be exploited if you're getting anything from your returns.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk|
|10-Oct||at Texas Tech||53|
|21-Nov||at Kansas State||33|
|28-Nov||at West Virginia||40|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-6.5% (73)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||67 / 66|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||0 / -4.7|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+2.0|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (6, 7)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||2.3 (-0.3)|
10. The wins come early
An experienced, healthy squad should start the season fully formed. There aren't many new starters to break in, and depth should be solid until or unless injuries take their toll. So in theory, Iowa State should be pretty decent in September.
This is good because the Cyclones play only five teams projected to rank lower than 43rd, and they account for the first five games on the schedule. The Cyclones won't win all five, but a top-70 team will have an outside shot at a 4-1 start. Get to that point, squeeze out home wins against beatable Texas and Oklahoma State teams, and voila: a return to bowl eligibility.
That path has almost no margin for error. When you fall to 92nd overall, it's hard to expect a rebound of more than about 20 spots, and even that would make ISU an underdog most of the time against this schedule.
After stockpiling so much goodwill, it appears Rhoads has spent most of it. Five wins and stark regression over two years have put him in a tight spot, and now he has to hope that an increasingly efficient offense and a couple of JUCO defensive tackles can pave the road for further improvement in 2016.