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Your Son And The Iowa State Cyclones

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Paul Rhoads is exactly the kind of coach you would want leading your own son. But he'll need a few more athletes to take Iowa State from giant killer to just giant.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

My wife and I are expecting our first (and probably only) child this September.  A girl.  We're appropriately excited about that, but it's a little bit disappointing at the moment, as I cannot open this piece by proclaiming that I want my son to play football for Paul Rhoads one day.  Instead, I'll just say that I want your son to play football for Paul Rhoads one day.

Rhoads' Iowa State teams are salty and opportunistic.  They do everything an underdog has to do to succeed in a major conference -- they convert any and all redzone opportunities, they force fumbles, and they prevent big plays -- and each season they claim a new scalp.  First, it was Nebraska in Lincoln in 2009; then, Texas in Austin in 2010.  (Yes, eight turnovers in Lincoln ... and yes, 5-7 Texas ... context, schmontext.)  Rhoads is energetic, skilled and, yes, so proud to be your coach.  The one thing he hasn't proven to be yet, of course, is a coach who can bring enough talent to Ames to transform Iowa State from giant killer to giant.

On paper, the 2011 Iowa State Cyclones look a lot like those from 2009 and 2010.  With the lowest five-year recruiting average in the Big 12, will his teams actually look any different on the field?  And if he keeps claiming scalps and occasionally reaching six or seven wins, will it matter?  They've won more than seven games in a season just once since Earle Bruce left Ames for Columbus in 1978, and just five times in their history.  What are Cyclones fans' expectations, and can Rhoads meet them over the long haul?

Better question: how long until this oddly attractive, completely out-of-place monstrosity is blown over?  Have you ever been to Jack Trice Stadium?  Straight-up wind tunnel.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk**: 81
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
02-Sep Northern Illinois 27-10 W 31.1 - 10.3 W
11-Sep at Iowa 7-38 L 18.5 - 32.1 L
18-Sep vs Kansas State 20-27 L 17.1 - 33.9 L
25-Sep Northern Iowa 27-0 W 12.6 - 29.1 L
02-Oct Texas Tech 52-38 W 31.2 - 32.2 L
09-Oct Utah 27-68 L 35.7 - 37.9 L
16-Oct at Oklahoma 0-52 L 7.6 - 40.2 L
23-Oct at Texas 28-21 W 34.4 - 29.3 W
30-Oct Kansas 28-16 W 22.6 - 23.2 L
06-Nov Nebraska 30-31 L 36.3 - 29.3 W
13-Nov at Colorado 14-34 L 13.0 - 27.0 L
20-Nov Missouri 0-14 L 16.2 - 20.2 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 21.7 97 29.1 78
Adj. Points Per Game 23.0 92 28.7 70

We often make the mistake of using short-term results to make long-term predictions.  In Rhoads first season in 2009, Iowa State made modest, encouraging improvements -- from 108th to 82nd in overall F/+, from 97th to 52nd in Off. S&P+ -- but they won a little too much, too early.  They forced an unsustainable 20 fumbles, and opponents laid another 12 fumbles on the ground completely umprompted (some occurrences were more amusing than others), and it allowed the Cyclones to go 3-2 in games decided by touchdown or less and 7-6 overall despite, again, only ranking 82nd in terms of overall performance.  This left some with the impression that Iowa State would always force this number of fumbles and pull out close games, and that they were dangerous in the Big 12 North (way back yonder when there was such a thing).  Not so much.

Instead, Iowa State basically held steady in 2010, ranking 81st overall and watching their offense regress and their defense improve.  This, in and of itself, is somewhat impressive; typically, when a team makes a healthy jump in the ratings one year, they regress a little the next.  For the Cyclones, the regression came on the scoreboard.  They went 1-2 in close games in a year when one game made the difference in bowl eligibility.  The offense was all over the map, and the defense suffered some serious mid-October cratering before rebounding to play well down the stretch.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 71 56 79
RUSHING 59 44 68 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 75 63 78 66
Standard Downs 72 59 81 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 89 92 87 94
Redzone 6 30 4
Q1 Rk 94 1st Down Rk 85
Q2 Rk 69 2nd Down Rk 74
Q3 Rk 79 3rd Down Rk 71
Q4 Rk 72

A decade ago in college (sigh), I attended a Bela Fleck & the Flecktones concert.  I was raving about Fleck's banjo-plucking abilities to a friend of mine, calling him "like, the best banjo player in the world or something."  (Sadly, that's still how I talk when I get excited.)  My friend paused, then said "How would that conversation with God go, exactly?  'Congratulations, I'm going to make you the best in the world at something.'  'YEAH!'  'Here's your banjo.'"

Congratulations, Iowa State, I'm going to make you one of the best in the country at something -- redzone offense!  One more thing: you're never going to actually get into the redzone.

Say this for Iowa State: they definitely knew how to take care of what few opportunities they had.  But that's kind of like hitting with RISP in baseball: it's a nice trait to have, but a) down the line, creating a ton of opportunities is more important than maximizing minimal opportunities, and b) if you're much better in the redzone than in the other 75-80 yards on the field, that might not be sustainable.

Surveying the entire field, Iowa State left something to be desired, particularly in one overriding category: explosiveness.  Specifically, the Cyclones had none.  In the five major sub-categories of PPP+ above (overall, rushing, passing, standard downs and passing downs), ISU ranked no better than 68th in the country.  They had a semi-efficient running game, but while "three rushes for 12 yards" might lead you to a nice success rate, it is very difficult to maintain length-of-the-field drives like that.  You need big plays, and ISU didn't get any.

If there is hope in this regard, it comes from running back Shontrelle Johnson.  A backup to Alexander Robinson (946 yards, 4.7 per carry, nine touchdowns, +2.6 Adj. POE; 201 receiving yards), Johnson was a bolt of lightning.  He received only about three carries per game -- and at 5'9, 180 pounds, we'll see how durable this sophomore is -- but he generated 218 yards (6.2 per carry) and a solid Adj. POE of +5.1.  We will likely find out his ceiling in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • Likable quarterback Austen Arnaud is gone after approximately nine years in an Iowa State uniform.  His stat line -- 1,703 yards (5.9 per pass), 59 percent completion rate, 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 287 rushing yards -- was respectable but replaceable.  Junior Jerome Tiller will almost certainly be the starter this fall.   In two seasons, Tiller has thrown for 739 yards (4.8/pass, 52% completion rate), two touchdowns and four interceptions.  He's been a decent ground threat, rushing for 391 yards (pre-sacks), two touchdowns, and a semi-respectable minus-1.6 Adj. POE.  He's got legs, and he might know how to use them, but he'll have to use his arm too, and there's no evidence that he can consistently do that.  Especially with this receiving corps.
  • The hands team has had its moments, but in general this has to be considered one of the worst major conference units in the country.  Gone are frequently-targeted tight end Collin Franklin (530 yards, 9.8 per catch, 6.5 per target, 67% catch rate) and possession receiver Jake Williams (404 yards, 11.5 per catch, 7.6 per target, 67% catch rate), but like Arnaud, that production is replaceable.  The problem is, it might not be replaceable by anybody on this roster.  To say the least, leading returnees Darius Darks (355 yards, 12.2 per catch, 6.4 per target, 52% catch rate) and Darius Reynolds (283 yards, 11.3 per catch, 5.8 per target, 51% catch rate) leave something to be desired in terms of down-to-down consistency (unless you're averaging about 18 yards per catch, there really is no excuse for a catch rate to slip below about 55%).  Rhoads and company have high hopes for JUCO transfer Aaron Horne from a big-play perspective, but we'll see.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 73 112 47
RUSHING 66 109 32 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 85 101 77 88
Standard Downs 62 103 46 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 53 57 49 107
Redzone 45 44 44
Q1 Rk 51 1st Down Rk 61
Q2 Rk 78 2nd Down Rk 90
Q3 Rk 58 3rd Down Rk 29
Q4 Rk 60

Under Rhoads, Iowa State has lived (and occasionally died) by the bend-don't-break credo.  Live to fight another down and hope to force a fumble.  In two years, the Cyclones have forced 36 fumbles in 25 games, ranking third in the category in 2009 and 20th in 2010.  Granted, in the meantime, they've also had one of the least-efficient defenses in the country, but forcing fumbles is Underdog Tactics 101 stuff, and ISU does it at as high a level as is maintainable from year to year.

Meanwhile, they make sure that while the ISU offense doesn't manage any big plays, the opposing offense doesn't either.  Rarely will you find a defense with differences this large between their Success Rate rankings and PPP+ rankings.  They will give you six yards on every snap, but they won't give you ten!  (That sounds a bit much like "Okay, you can rob my house, but you're not taking the coffee maker!"  But you get the point.)

Despite the lack of efficiency, the Cyclones' defense really did improve a solid amount last year, and they could be in line to do so again in 2011.  There is one concern, however: they lose a great deal of experience at the safety position -- strong safety David Sims and his 75.5 tackles are out the door, as are the 78.5 tackles of the Michael O'Connell/Zac Sandvig duo.  Typically I'd point out that most of this trio's tackles were of the downfield, "somebody had to make the tackle" variety, but when you rely so much on your ability to avoid big plays, losing your starting safeties is alarming.

If the safety situation is figured out, the front seven could be decent.  Linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein (178.5 combined tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 7 interceptions, 6 PBU's) were both tackling machines and playmakers, and there is depth on the line despite the losses of end Rashawn Parker and tackle Bailey Johnson.  Every time I watched Iowa State last year, I came away impressed with tackle Stephen Ruempolhamer (and not just because his name is Stephen Ruempolhamer).  Imagine my surprise, then, when his stats (23.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) were not very good.  This speaks to the difficulty of evaluating defensive tackles.  Odds are, his best plays were the ones that opened up tackling lanes for Knott and Klein, not the ones in which he actually made the play himself .

Other tidbits:

Iowa State's 2010 Season Set to Music

It was long, arduous, and not always worth it, only with a couple of brilliant moments in the middle.  Sounds like every Funkadelic song over six minutes.  ("All Your Goodies Are Gone" and "I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody's Got a Thing," to name two.  "Maggot Brain" does not apply because "Maggot Brain" is perfection.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 91
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 61
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +6 / +6
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.5

In his limited action, Jerome Tiller has shown decent ability when it comes to game-management -- knowing when to throw the ball away, knowing when not to take risks, knowing when to live to fight another down, etc.  When you've got a killer defense and big-play threats on offense, that's perfect.  However, ISU is going to need a quarterback who can create on his own, and I'm not sure Tiller has that in him, at least not over 60 minutes in at least six games.

ISU's schedule is brutal (11 BCS conference opponents, including trips to UConn, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas Tech), and though their turnover margin seems somewhat sustainable and the team itself might be better than it was in the last year or two, six wins will be difficult to come by for Rhoads and ISU.  With Iowa, Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State coming to Ames, there will be ample opportunity to pull another fun upset, but ... they'll have to pull more than one to get to their second bowl in three seasons.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.