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Iowa State hasn’t had this much upside since Seneca Wallace was in town

Matt Campbell’s Cyclones should be on the verge of several fun years.

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NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 12 and has since been updated.

In its own way, Iowa State might be the most consistent program in the country. When the Cyclones reach a certain level, whatever that level is, they stay there for a while.

From 1990-93, that meant winning either three or four games each year. From 2001-05, that meant winning exactly seven games four times in five years. From 2009-12: 7-6, 5-7, 6-7, 6-7. And from 2013 to the present: 3-9, 2-10, 3-9, 3-9.

Hell, this was even the case back in ISU’s heyday under Earle Bruce. ISU won four games in each of his first three years, then won exactly eight in each of the next three.

This might be good news, as the most recent four-year term has expired. It’s time to establish something new. And in reading the tea leaves from last season, that something might be pretty good.

Mind you, ISU went just 3-9 last year. At first glance, it could seem like any of the three seasons before. But if you were paying attention midseason, you saw a team with upside far greater than we’ve grown accustomed to.

Yes, ISU did lose to Northern Iowa in the opener, then by a combined 83-23 to Iowa and TCU. And despite otherwise solid play in the Big 12, the Cyclones did lose to Texas and West Virginia by a combined 76-25. That’ll drag your ratings down.

Still, the flashes were noteworthy. The Cyclones held Texas Tech to 10 points and 4.4 yards per play, led Baylor by 14 points in the fourth quarter, led Oklahoma State by 10 in the fourth quarter in Stillwater, played Oklahoma even over the final 46 minutes of a 10-point loss, and nearly charged back to beat Kansas State via dramatic comeback. And once Jacob Park took over the quarterback job over the last five games, ISU averaged 33 points per game and 6.9 yards per play.

It was all about flashes and moments, and not actual results, but that’s par for the course for a program that has had a lot more moments than runs. It’s been more than a century since ISU won a conference title, and in the history of the AP poll, the Cyclones have finished in the top 25 just twice — in 1976 under Bruce and in 2000 under McCarney.

Led by the tantalizing Seneca Wallace, ISU reached ninth in the polls in 2002 but cratered to 7-7. They reached 11th in 1981 and finished 5-5-1. They reached 12th in 1972 and finished 5-6-1. This is a program that tends to collapse, and it was literal in those OSU and Baylor games.

There’s nothing saying Campbell changes that; it is difficult to overcome a program’s entire history in your first year or two. But I like what I see here.

Despite the duds, Iowa State finished 48th in Off. S&P+, the Cyclones’ highest offensive ranking since 2006. And they did so with part-time uncertainty at quarterback, a slumping running back, and a freshman No. 2 receiver, and their best lineman out for the season with injury. The defense fell to 95th in Def. S&P+ but was rock solid in the middle of the season. Special teams was excellent.

Overall, ISU finished 64th in S&P+, its best ranking since 2012, the last bowl season. And then Campbell signed what was easily ISU’s best recruiting class in recent memory. It’s all relative, of course — per the 247Sports Composite, the Cyclones’ haul ranked 52nd overall and seventh in the Big 12. But in his last five years, predecessor Paul Rhoads’ average rank was in the 60s and was either last or second-to-last in the conference. Campbell improved that in 2016, then did it again in 2017.

This fall, ISU should have its best offense since Wallace was quarterback. The defense is a massive question and will rely on JUCO transfers (albeit well-touted ones) up front. It might not come around enough for the Cyclones to surge to a bowl bid. But we should see enough upside to think that the next three- or four-year term for ISU will be a much happier one.

2016 in review

2016 Iowa State statistical profile.

Under Rhoads, ISU’s average overall S&P+ ranking was 71st; that Campbell topped that in his first year is impressive, but 64th isn’t dramatic overachievement. The word for the day, however, is “upside,” and after a dreadful start, Iowa State showed top-50 upside for about two-thirds of the season.

  • First 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 25% (18% offense, 27% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, ISU 4.6 (minus-1.2) | Avg. score: Opp 36, ISU 14
  • Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 48% (53% offense, 42% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.1, ISU 5.6 (minus-0.5) | Avg. score: ISU 31, Opp 30
  • Next 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 68% (65% offense, 60% defense) | Avg. yards per play: ISU 6.8, Opp 5.4 (plus-1.4) | Avg. score: ISU 37, Opp 25

Now, there are 12 games in a season, not 11, and the last was a 49-19 home loss against West Virginia, a game closer than the score suggests — it was 28-19 with ISU driving late in the third quarter — but one that still undid some of the happy feelings from the 66-10 win over Texas Tech the week before.

Still, the trajectory was clear. ISU showed potential in the middle of the season but couldn’t hold onto leads against Baylor and OSU and briefly cratered against Texas. But Park took the job beginning with the Kansas State game, and ISU played at a top-40 level for most of the next month. That’s something to build on.


Iowa State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Just imagine what this offense might have been capable of with the Mike Warren of 2015.

Warren was just about the sole bright spot of Rhoads’ last year. As a freshman, he had a sustained breakout, averaging 137 rushing yards per game over a nine-game period and cranking out 245 against Texas Tech, 195 against Kansas State, and 175 against Kansas. He combined decent efficiency (38 percent of his carries gained at least five yards, slightly beneath the national average) with high-end explosiveness.

Baylor v Iowa State
Mike Warren
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

2016 saw quite the sophomore slump. Warren dealt with a high ankle sprain and got called out by Campbell in the media for not practicing hard enough. His efficiency dropped a little, and his explosiveness vanished. He carried 19 times for 103 yards against San Jose State but otherwise averaged just 4 yards per carry. Over the final four games, as ISU’s offense was surging, he carried 10 times for 29 yards. Meanwhile, a new pair of freshmen — David Montgomery and Kene Nwangwu — combined to carry 82 times for 481 yards.

Rumors swirled about Warren and a potential transfer; he nipped that in the bud. He said and did all the right things in the spring, and while Nwangwu is dealing with the effects of a torn Achilles and might not be able to contribute this fall, the thought of a Warren-Montgomery tandem, in which both are playing to their capabilities at the same time, is thrilling.

Lord knows the Cyclones don’t need too much from the run game to have a good offense, not with this passing game.

When Park seized control of the quarterback job from Joel Lanning, ISU’s ceiling got higher. Lanning is an excellent athlete, averaged 6.2 yards per carry (not including sacks), and had his moments in the passing game — he was behind the wheel for most of the Baylor and OSU games, after all. But the combination of Park’s emergence and the surge from Montgomery and Nwangwu made ISU devastating down the stretch. Park takes far fewer sacks, and in wins over Kansas and Texas Tech, he completed a combined 34 of 54 passes for 490 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.

He benefited from Allen Lazard growing further into his four-star status. A rare ISU blue-chipper, Lazard improved his success rate from 52 to 55 percent in 2016 and maintained a solid average of 14.7 yards per catch. And his connection with Park was strong. He averaged about five catches for about 64 yards per game through the first seven games of the year, then bumped that to 7 for 114 over the last five.

The Park-to-Lazard combo is exciting, but so is the fact that most of the rest of the receiving corps returns. That includes Deshaunte Jones, who caught 37 balls at 9.9 yards per target as a freshman slot receiver. Throw in 6’4 JUCO transfer Matthew Eaton, and you’ve got a pretty scary passing game. And if we see more of 2015 Warren than 2016 Warren, you’ve got maybe the most high-ceiling ISU offense in 15 years.

There might be some question marks up front, though. Of last year’s 60 combined starts, those responsible for 49 of them are gone, which is scary considering that, especially with Park at QB, “not moving backwards” was maybe ISU’s biggest strength. Despite blocking for a struggling Warren and two freshmen, ISU still ranked 12th in allowing only a 15.5 percent stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and Park had only a five percent sack rate, good for a QB averaging 13.5 yards per completion (and therefore looking downfield a decent amount).

There’s hope, though. Tackle Jake Campos, a two-year starter and former four-star recruit, missed last season with a broken leg but should be full strength. He and sophomore Julian Good-Jones are keepers, and hopes are high for Michigan grad transfer David Dawson [update: Dawson has since left the team]. In terms of pure recruiting rankings, this might be the most highly-touted unit on the team. It just needs to prove itself a bit.

San Jose State v Iowa State
Jacob Park
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images


Iowa State defensive radar

Iowa State was pretty good at not allowing big plays, especially against the pass.

There. That’s the list of things that the Cyclones did well defensively.

And hey, there are worse things in the world than big-play prevention. But they were also one of the least efficient defenses in the country and easily the least efficient in the Big 12, not including the black hole of defenselessness known as Texas Tech.

Iowa State defensive efficiency & explosiveness

There’s a positive and a negative spin for this.

The positive: the secondary returns almost intact, and two of three linebackers are back. The odds of the Cyclones again being excellent at big-play prevention are strong. Plus, hey, the line already stunk last year, so the fact that it’s undergoing massive turnover probably won’t hurt much!

The less positive spin: ISU gave up at least 34 points six times last year, dragged down by a horrendous run defense (105th in Rushing S&P+, 125th in rushing success rate), and it’s hard to predict improvement with the turnover up front.

There’s definitely hope, though. Five of last year’s top seven tacklers on the line are gone, but the best pass rusher of the group (sophomore JaQuan Bailey) returns, and if at least two of three JUCO transfers — tackles Kamilo Tongamoa and Ray Lima, end Matt Leo — play at a Big 12 level, then maybe there’s enough here to engineer improvement. Lord knows the bar isn’t very high.

San Jose State v Iowa State
JaQuan Bailey (19) and D’Andre Payne (1)
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

With competence up front, the middle and back of the defense could thrive. Junior linebackers Willie Harvey and Reggan Northrup combined for 11 tackles for loss and four sacks, and incoming freshman linebacker O’Rien Vance was one of the stars of the February signing haul. And the secondary could indeed be exciting.

Cornerbacks Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne combined for seven tackles for loss and 19 passes defensed last year as sophomores, and safeties Kamari Cotton-Moya, Evrett Edwards, and Mike Johnson were key in the big-play prevention efforts. Defensive backs made quite a few plays despite the woeful run defense keeping opponents in comfortable downs and distances and despite a lack of pass rush on rare passing downs. Give them just a little bit of help, and this becomes one of the Big 12’s better pass defenses. But that’s a big ask.

Oklahoma v Iowa State
Brian Peavy
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Special Teams

A good special teams unit can make the difference in close games, but in ISU’s case, a good special teams unit simply made games closer. The Cyclones ranked sixth in Special Teams S&P+, thanks both to excellent place-kicking from Cole Netten and the simple lack of predominant weakness.

Trever Ryan was a little bit too all-or-nothing in punt returns, but he indeed had a few “alls.” Meanwhile, Colin Downing’s punts were mostly unreturnable, Chris Francis’ kickoffs found the end zone 52 percent of the time, and Nwangwu was an excellent kick returner.

There will probably be a drop off this year. Netten is gone, and Nwangwu is hurt. Francis, Downing, and Ryan return, and Oregon State transfer Garrett Owens offers a new place-kicking option. But No. 6 is awfully high — we’ll say this is more like a top-40 unit this year.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Northern Iowa NR 20.5 88%
9-Sep Iowa 48 1.6 54%
23-Sep at Akron 122 16.5 83%
30-Sep Texas 16 -8.8 30%
7-Oct at Oklahoma 5 -21.9 10%
14-Oct Kansas 107 17.1 84%
21-Oct at Texas Tech 66 -1.3 47%
28-Oct TCU 21 -7.0 34%
4-Nov at West Virginia 69 0.3 51%
11-Nov Oklahoma State 22 -6.8 35%
18-Nov at Baylor 28 -8.1 32%
25-Nov at Kansas State 35 -6.5 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 57
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 32 / 83
Projected wins 5.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.9 (71)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 49 / 57
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -2.8
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (86%, 65%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.2 (-1.2)

Iowa State has a potentially strong quarterback, it’s highest-ceiling skill corps in ages, and a line with decent experience and massive potential.

The defense’s strengths will be as strong or stronger, and its weaknesses probably won’t be weaker.

ISU lost four one-possession games last year, and put together top-50 level play for about two-thirds of last season.

I like where this is headed, in other words. The run defense could hold Iowa State back, but the Cyclones’ stats hinted at a team with far greater upside than the 3-9 record suggested, and with a top-60 S&P+ projection, it is conceivable that they threaten for a bowl bid. S&P+ forecasts 5.8 wins with three likely victories and three to five relative tossups.

I said in last year’s preview that, “I like the Campbell hire, and I assume he will have ISU steadily in the 5-7 to 8-4 range. He will sign top-50 recruiting classes and put a top-60 product on the field.“ If ISU plays at a certain level for three to four years at a time, expect these next three to four years to be awfully fun.

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