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Iowa State won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around

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The Cyclones won eight games for just the sixth time in 100 years but will need to pull some road upsets to top that this year.

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NCAA Football: Iowa State at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

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Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Iowa State on October 7, 2017, was falling behind, 14-0. The heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners, who were gearing up for a rivalry game and would eventually come within a play of the national title game, made it look so easy out of the gates that they relaxed.

ISU was starting a new QB after getting shut down by Texas and had gone three-and-out to start the game. OU was up two touchdowns nine minutes in. This was going to be a laugher.

Then suddenly, it wasn’t. Mixing between Kyle Kempt and linebacker/wildcat Joel Lanning at QB, the Cyclones scored three times to cut OU’s lead to 24-13 at halftime, then made it 24-16 on the first drive of the second half. Back at linebacker, Lanning recovered a fumble at the ISU 6 just as OU was about to go up double digits again, then Kempt led a 94-yard drive to tie the game.

As often happens when a heavy favorite finds itself in a fight, OU began to falter. A missed field goal gave ISU an opening, and Kempt hit Trever Ryen for a 57-yard touchdown. After some more Lanning help, Kempt and Allen Lazard connected for a beautiful 25-yard lob-and-grab for another Cyclone lead with 2:19 left.

This time OU was out of answers. Flat-footed and confused, the Sooners went just 17 yards in five plays and turned the ball over on downs. Iowa State had just rope-a-dope’d its way into its biggest-ever road upset.

Three weeks later, Campbell’s Cyclones beat No. 4 TCU, too, just for good measure.

After going a combined 8-28 from 2014-16, ISU went 8-5 in 2017. The Cyclones beat both Big 12 title game participants and held an explosive Memphis to 20 points in a Liberty Bowl win, and their five losses came by a combined 25 points. The offense was hit-or-miss, but the defense was legitimately solid, ranking 32nd in Def. S&P+, its best placement since 2005.

The defense was fun. Coordinator Jim Heacock reconfigured his attack on the fly a few weeks in, making a concerted effort to get his best play-makers on the field. The Cyclones got less torched by Oklahoma than most and gave up only 17 points per game over their final 10 contests. They stopped the run beautifully, improving from 105th to 22nd in Rushing S&P+, despite playing a low-in-girth 3-3-5 and replacing most of 2016’s contributors. They attacked the run and contained the pass.

Two years in, Campbell and his staff have proven feisty, smart, and adaptable. And now they have to deal with something only slightly more familiar than beating OU: expectations. ISU does lose three of its top four receivers (Lazard, Ryen, and Marchie Murdock), all-conference left tackle Jake Campos, and a couple of key defensive havoc (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles) guys in Lanning and end J.D. Waggoner. But they still have Kempt, running back David Montgomery, big-play wideout Hakeem Butler, and four of the defense’s top six havoc creators.

ISU isn’t going to be a preseason top-25 team, but the Cyclones aren’t going to sneak up on anyone in 2018, and their schedule features trips to Iowa, TCU, Oklahoma State, and Texas. Topping eight wins will be difficult, but no one expected them to be what they became last year either.

Offense

2017 Iowa State offensive radar

Perhaps the most optimistic thing you can say about Iowa State’s offense is that one of its key guys last year wasn’t even very effective.

David Montgomery caught fire late in his freshman season (2016), rushing for a combined 310 yards against Kansas and WVU and finishing the year at 5.2 yards per carry. But after a decent start to 2017 (321 yards at 5.7 per carry through three games), his production grew pretty sketchy — he averaged just 4.1 yards per carry over his final 10 games.

This wasn’t necessarily his fault. He earned All-American honors from Pro Football Focus for forcing over 100 missed tackles and averaging 3.5 yards per carry after contact. Opponents didn’t fear the passing game (something ISU took advantage of on occasion), and ISU’s line couldn’t cope with extra defenders in the box.

The line should be more experienced this year, at least. Sixty percent of last year’s line starts went to a freshmen and three sophomores. Losing Campos and guard Robby Garcia isn’t good, but this might still be a net gain. Honorable mention all-conference center Julian Good-Jones is back, and there are a couple of hefty, exciting sophomores in the mix in 6’8 Sean Foster and 325-pound Jacob Bolton.

Montgomery still managed four 100-yard rushing games in conference play, but for Iowa State to achieve greater offensive consistency, not only must the line improve, but the Cyclones also need to more consistently make defenses pay for keying on the junior RB.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State
David Montgomery (32)
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

That could be tricky with a semi-new receiving corps. Lazard, Murdock, and Ryen combined for 54 percent of ISU’s targets in 2017, and quite a few green players will be asked to fill bigger roles.

It’s possible they answer the call. Butler (697 yards, 17.1 per catch) and slot man Deshaunte Jones (411 yards, 13.3 per catch) were possibly the Cyclones’ two most explosive receivers last year, and 6’4 senior Matthew Eaton had the best marginal efficiency of any ISU receiver with at least two targets.

Those are solid building blocks, and they could get pushed by exciting youngsters: sophomores Jalen Martin and Landen Akers, redshirt freshmen Josh Johnson and Tarique Milton, or four-star freshman Joseph Scates. If only one or two of those young players proves worthy of a few targets per game, Kempt could have the weapons.

Kempt was a stabilizing force, but a little extra play-making oomph probably wouldn’t hurt. After the amazing performance against OU (18-for-24 for 343 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks), he settled into a niche of making safe passes (65 percent completion rate with just three INTs) and taking few chances (10.1 yards per completion). Despite the high completion rate, his passer rating didn’t top 150 in any other game. He wasn’t peeling defenders away from the line of scrimmage.

To a degree, this was by design. Campbell’s a Mount Union product — which basically means he has a PhD in coaching — so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that as his defense began to find itself, he tried to do the defense favors with tempo and mistake avoidance.

Still, ISU scored 19 or fewer points in three losses. And Kempt looked awfully good when he was allowed to take some downfield risks against OU.

NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Iowa State vs Memphis
Kyle Kempt
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Iowa State defensive radar

ISU’s aerial conservatism on offense was matched by its defense. The Cyclones ranked just 96th at passing success rate prevention (44 percent) and 126th in completions allowed (67 percent). Those numbers are unadjusted for opponent, and ISU played some ridiculous offenses, but as with the offense, that level of conservatism was perhaps a little much.

ISU’s secondary got thinned out a bit this offseason. Three senior cornerbacks — Brian Peavy, D’Andre Payne, and De’Monte Ruth, who combined for 137.5 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and 17 passes defensed, and certainly looked solid when given the chance to get aggressive — do return. But the top four safeties are gone. Sophomore Lawrence White made 13 tackles last year; he’s now the dean of the safeties unit. He and JUCO transfer (and one-time Ole Miss signee) Greg Eisworth seemed to come away from spring ball atop the depth chart.

Still, with likely two starting sophomore safeties, Heacock probably isn’t going to suddenly proclaim, “Now’s the time to get super aggressive!”

NCAA Football: Northern Iowa at Iowa State
Brian Peavy
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

So how did ISU nearly crack the Def. S&P+ top 30 with a pass defense so lax? Well, that probably tells you how good the run defense was.

It was a team-wide effort, too. Peavy, just a 5’9 corner, took part in eight run stuffs. Each of the top three linebackers (two of whom return) took part in at least 13. Tackles Ray Lima and Enyi Uwazurike stood up blockers well enough for the speed of the 3-3-5 structure to take over.

I can’t say I’m amazingly confident in the ISU pass defense getting a lot better, but I’m not worried about the run defense getting worse, either. Losing Lanning and Waggoner (combined: 24.5 TFLs) hurts, but those two and reserve tackle Vernell Trent are the only departures in the front six/seven.

Lima, Uwazurike, and junior pass rush specialist JaQuan Bailey are all back up front, and two juniors — tackle Jamahl Johnson and end Matt Leo — each had solid springs.

At linebacker, the Cyclones still have Marcel Spears Jr. and Willie Harvey. Spears was magnificent as an out-of-nowhere sophomore, and Harvey actually led the team in havoc plays (11.5 TFLs, six passes defensed, one forced fumble).

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State
Marcel Spears Jr. (42) and Willie Harvey (2)
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

ISU had maybe the most perfectly mediocre special teams in the country. The Cyclones ranked between 54th (kickoffs) and 82nd (kick returns) in each of the five efficiency categories; they were neither great nor terrible in any aspect, and their No. 68 Special Teams S&P+ ranking reflected that.

For better or worse, that perfect special teams neutrality probably won’t remain. Kickoffs guy Chris Francis is back, as are last year’s kick returners, but punter Colin Downing, place-kicker Garrett Owens, and punt returner Ryen are all gone.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep South Dakota State NR 21.8 90%
8-Sep at Iowa 36 -5.1 38%
15-Sep Oklahoma 9 -12.3 24%
22-Sep Akron 119 19.7 87%
29-Sep at TCU 22 -9.3 30%
6-Oct at Oklahoma State 19 -9.8 29%
13-Oct West Virginia 43 2.1 55%
27-Oct Texas Tech 47 3.0 57%
3-Nov at Kansas 103 10.3 72%
10-Nov Baylor 50 3.2 57%
17-Nov at Texas 27 -7.5 33%
24-Nov Kansas State 61 5.2 62%
Projected S&P+ Rk 46
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 78 / 34
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.9 (74)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 49 / 55
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / -1.6
2017 TO Luck/Game +4.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (65%, 62%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.7 (0.3)

S&P+ projects ISU just 6-6 this year, which is probably fair — I’ve gone back and forth between about 4-8 and 9-3.

The case for 2018 being a natural regression year:

  1. The Cyclones are thinned out at receiver and DB, and continuity in those two units tends to have a pretty direct impact on change in S&P+.
  2. Turnovers luck went massively in ISU’s favor. Based on national averages for fumble recoveries and the ratio of interceptions to pass breakups, the Cyclones’ turnover margin should have been about minus-2. It was plus-10. That’s the third-largest difference in the country. Considering they had a plus-13 TO margin in eight wins and a minus-3 margin in five losses, you could see how regression in that regard might have an effect.
  3. ISU plays four projected top-40 teams on the road, and while OU does have to come to Ames, let’s just say the odds are good that the Sooners don’t throw it in cruise this time.

The case for 2017 being only the beginning of ISU’s rise:

  1. Kempt still has some experienced receivers, and even if the numbers didn’t reflect it last year, Montgomery’s awesome. And now they’re both more experienced.
  2. Heacock’s front six/seven could end up even more disruptive. And while safety is green, ISU is proven at cornerback.
  3. I just really like Campbell. His teams overachieve their stats in most years, and while they’re projected to play in quite a few close games (six projected within a touchdown), I like his chances of going at least 3-3 or 4-2 or so in those games, even if the god of turnovers is less kind.

I think the “regression” case is a bit stronger right now, but I hope I’m wrong.

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