In 1967, the University of Houston played one of the strangest schedules of all-time. Bill Yeoman's Cougars opened the season by whipping pre-Bowden Florida State, 33-13, then heading to East Lansing and absolutely smoking No. 3 Michigan State, 37-7. The win moved them from unranked to third in the country. (There was only a Top 10 at this time, so while that's an impressive jump, it probably isn't as impressive as you first thought it was.) The next week, they throttled Wake Forest by 44 points and moved to No. 2. They promptly lost at home to unranked N.C. State, 16-6. Two weeks later, they lost at Ole Miss and found themselves unranked again. No worries: they beat No. 5 Georgia, 15-14, and moved back into the Top 10 … and then lost at Tulsa to wrap up the regular season. Unranked and without a conference, the Cougars did not end up in a bowl game.
Houston beat two top-five teams and lost three games to unranked opponents. In other words, they did what Paul Rhoads seems to do at Iowa State every damn season.
In 2009, Rhoads' first season in charge in Ames, Iowa State famously upset Nebraska in Lincoln and almost did the same at No. 16 Kansas. They also lost to unranked Iowa, Texas A&M and Missouri squads by combined 104-37.
In 2010, the Cyclones won at No. 22 Texas (their first ever win over the Longhorns) and fell by one point in overtime to No. 9 Nebraska after a fake PAT attempt got knocked down by the wind. They also lost at unranked (and rather terrible) Colorado by 20 points and finished 5-7.
In 2011, Iowa State topped Iowa in overtime (which seemed more impressive at the time than it probably was), mauled No. 19 Texas Tech in Lubbock, almost won at No. 16 Kansas State in Manhattan, and, of course, handed No. 2 Oklahoma State its only loss of the season in overtime. They also lost to unranked Missouri and Rutgers squads by a combined score of 79-30 and damn near lost to FCS Northern Iowa (20-19) and Kansas (13-10).
Each year, Rhoads and the Cyclones seem to up the craziness ante, and in a conference that features six teams ranked in SB Nation's preseason Top 25 (coming soon), they will once again get the chance to claim more scalps for Rhoads' wall in 2012. Oklahoma (Nov. 3) and West Virginia (Nov. 23) each come to town late in the year, as does Kansas State (Oct. 13), and there could be road upset attempts aplenty with trips to TCU (Oct. 6), Oklahoma State (Oct. 20) and Texas (Nov. 10). Fans of all of those schools should be wary of the Cyclones and their giant-killing ways.
At the same time, however, while we can count on Iowa State rising up and playing over its head a couple of times per year, are we ever going to see an actually good season from them? In three years, Rhoads is 18-20. The Cyclones went 6-6 and won their bowl in 2009, and they went 6-6 and lost their bowl in 2011 … and hey, big upsets and bowl trips are a solid foundation. But will they ever be a threat to actually win a vast majority of their games under Rhoads?
Entering this fall, Rhoads says he has his most talented team to date. That's great, but there isn't a lot of evidence of that on paper. Every year, his defense gets better and his offense gets worse, and while both units return some interesting, experienced players in 2012, so does everybody else in a Big 12 conference that just traded two good-to-very-good programs for two very-good-to-excellent ones. ISU's 2012 schedule features seven teams projected 34th or better in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 and only two opponents projected worse than them. They will win more than two games, but at what point do upsets start mattering less and a general lack of big-time success start mattering more? Or does that point exist for a school that has won more than eight games in a season just once since 1906 and finished ranked just twice?
(And yes, I said many of the same things last year, and then Rhoads pulled the Rhoadsiest season to date. So maybe he'll just continue to up the ante. Besides, Houston won multiple SWC titles under Yeoman following the craziness of 1967, right?)
Rhoads is an insanely likable, intense, risk-taking coach, and watching his undermanned squad take out favored teams is always a thrill. But it does bear mentioning that there is a difference between single-week success and season-long success, and at some point Iowa State fans might start getting impatient when presented the former without the latter.
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. […] On paper, the 2011 Iowa State Cyclones look a lot like those from 2009 and 2010. […]
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.
Turns out, Iowa State indeed needed, and got, more than one upset to become bowl eligible. The Cyclones took out Iowa in early September and Oklahoma State in mid-November, and that did the trick. But there was a major plot change midway through the season, when redshirt freshman Jared Barnett took over for junior college transfer Steele Jantz behind center. The results were … similar.
First Six Games (With Steele Jantz): Opponents 28.9 Adj. Points per game, Iowa State 25.1 (minus-3.8)
Last Seven Games (With Jared Barnett): Opponents 27.2 Adj. Points per game, Iowa State 24.1 (minus-3.1)
On a play-by-play basis, the offense got slightly worse with Barnett, but while the upside was lower, the downside was higher: Barnett threw fewer interceptions (2.7 interception rate to Jantz's 4.2). And Barnett was done some favors by a the defense that improved a bit as the season progressed. Because of this, ISU ripped off a three-game win streak versus Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State, and it took them from 3-4 to 6-4. They lost their final three games following the OSU upset, however.
In 2011, Iowa State attempted offensive balance despite a complete and total lack of a passing game. The Cyclones ran 59 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 34 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). Despite a general level of ineffectiveness, the Cyclones also played at a rather fast pace, though some of that could have just been other Big 12 offenses rubbing off on them. Regardless, the Cyclones in no way, shape or form maximized their strengths, which in 2011 were efficient running and solid line play.
In theory, there could be a philosophical change in 2012. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman left to become Urban Meyer's O.C. at Ohio State despite the simple fact that his ISU offense regressed considerably after an encouraging 2009. In his place, Rhoads promoted receivers coach Courtney Messingham, a former Southern Miss assistant, Missouri State offensive coordinator and Upper Iowa University head coach. Messingham preached "simplification" for most of the spring, but early indications are that not much will change this fall. That means the passing game simply has to improve. Last year, it was an absolute albatross.
Will it change? Only if newcomers (either young receivers or new receivers coach Todd Sturdy) make a huge early impact. Sturdy was most recently Washington State's offensive coordinator, and while the Cougars had all sorts of issues overall (to say the least), the passing game was certainly a relative strength. If he can craft a Marquess Wilson clone out of a redshirt freshman like Quenton Bundrage, Ja'Quarius Daniels or Tad Ecby (or true freshman Quan West), that would be a fantastic. Otherwise he's stuck with the same mediocre options ISU had last year. If there is good news here, it's that the newcomers can't really do much worse than two recently departed seniors: Darius Reynolds and Darius Darks combined to catch just 64 of 142 passes thrown their way (a 45 percent catch rate) for 906 yards and a per-target average of 6.4 yards. That's not good. Seniors Aaron Horne (6.6 yards per target) and Josh Lenz (8.2) lead the way, along with sophomore Jarvis West (3.5) and junior Albert Gary (7.6). I just threw a ton of names at you, and I'm not sure any of them will make a memorable impact in 2012. If nothing else, Lenz and West could help to improve the starting quarterback's completion percentage, as could the reemergence of the tight end position.
Now, about that starting quarterback. Iowa State found itself with an interesting race last year, starting the year with a relatively immature junior college transfer who made silly mistakes and locked onto receivers (but scrambled and gunned his way to an upset of Iowa), and finishing it with a relatively mature redshirt freshman who made both fewer mistake and fewer big plays (but made enough to lead the Cyclones to an upset of Oklahoma State). Both had their moments, and neither could consistently throw the ball successfully. Including sacks, Jantz averaged 5.2 yards per pass attempt with more frequent mistakes (a six percent sack rate and the aforementioned four percent interception rate), while Barnett averaged a lesser, steadier 5.0. Heading into fall camp, Rhoads, Messingham and company have no idea who will start. Personally, if a sophomore and a senior are dead even, I go with the sophomore, but that's just me.
At times, despite a precarious passing game, ISU was able to lean on the run. We'll see if that's the case in 2012, as the running backs unit gets better and deeper, and the offensive line loses two fantastic starters. Gone are left tackle Kelechi Osemele (a first-team all-conference selection, now a Baltimore Raven) and right guard Hayworth Hicks (second-team, Indianapolis Colt). They take with them more career starts (68) than all returnees combined (52), though ISU is not devoid of experience up front. Thanks to injuries, shuffling, et cetera, six returnees have started games at some point, led by senior tackle Brayden Burris (19 career starts), center Tom Farniok (13) and guard Ethan Tuftee (10). But the upside here could be limited; ISU ranked 45th in Adj. Line Yards and 39th in Adj. Sack Rate -- these were the two highest rankings ISU's offense produced -- so any dropoff could be costly.
Perhaps an improved set of running backs can make up some of the difference. Junior James White gained 743 yards on 4.7 yards per carry (and a minus-2.6 Adj. POE, meaning he was about three points worse than the average running back given his carries, blocking and opponents) last year, but while junior Shontrelle Johnson rehabbed a neck injury, White was pushed by two intriguing redshirt freshmen: DeVondrick Nealy and Rob Standard. Messingham has options here; we'll see if he has a) blocking and b) the passing game to pull defenders away from the line of scrimmage.
The Iowa State defense has improved through the years, at almost the same rate as the offense has regressed. The offense has fallen from 34th in Off. F/+ in 2009, to 74th, to 82nd. Meanwhile, after an initial collapse, the defense has improved from 106th in Def. F/+, to 84th, to 55th. Rhoads, a former defensive coordinator himself, and grizzled coordinator Wally Burnham have begun to figure out the right buttons to press with this unit, though 2012 could be a challenge thanks to losses both on the line and, more importantly, in the secondary.
The 2011 ISU defense was downright solid against the pass. The Cyclones ranked 39th in Passing S&P+ (30th in Passing Success Rate+) despite a complete lack of a pass rush. They prevented big plays on passing downs, and they played a strong bend-don't-break defense, stepping up to 25th in Red Zone S&P+. That they did this with nearly no impact from a veteran line was both impressive and somewhat encouraging for 2012. The line must replace two starting defensive ends (Jake Lattimer, Patrick Neal) and nose guard Stephen Ruempolhamer, but does it really matter? The new line can probably match last year's rankings (91st in Adj. Line Yards, 96th in Adj. Sack Rate), but newcomers and returnees will determine whether it can exceed them. End Roosevelt Maggitt returns after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury, while Wyoming transfer Ben Durbin could make a reasonable impact at either end or tackle. Of course, these two players combined for just 5.5 tackles for loss in their last full seasons, so expecting them to be more disruptive than the players they replace could be foolish. Physically, the most interesting lineman has to be sophomore David Irving (6'7, 262 pounds), who batted down two passes in three games last year but did little else.
If the line can improve at all, it will be a welcome change for veteran linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. The two seniors (who have each been playing for ISU since approximately 1988) combined for 23 percent of the Cyclones' tackles last year and combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, nine passes broken up and four forced fumbles. Iowa State always seems to have a good, old-fashioned tackling machine linebacker, but Knott and Klein have both shown to have at least a little bit of true play-making ability as well; they have also helped Rhoads disguise what might otherwise have been some serious depth issues. Of the nine four-year linebackers Rhoads has signed, only five remain at ISU.
Klein moves to middle linebacker full-time, making way for skinny-but-fast junior Deon Broomfield to take over on the strongside, if sophomore C.J. Morgan doesn't overtake him anyway. The upside for either player is unclear, though 2.0 of Morgan's 13.0 tackles last year were behind the line of scrimmage. Broomfield could end up either at linebacker or safety before all is said and done. (And with the prevalence of the nickel in the Big 12, he will probably be both at the same time, a la Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson.)
The secondary was the strength of the 2011 Iowa State defense. A fun set of redshirt freshmen will add depth to the unit, but we'll see how much they miss four-year starting corner Leonard Johnson (one interception, eight passes broken up, 2.0 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries) and strong safety Ter'Ran Benton (4.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions, three passes broken up). Each were strong play-makers, but ISU does return a couple more: free safety Jacques Washington (one interception, eight passes broken up, 1.0 tackles for loss) has nice ball skills, while senior corner Jeremy Reeves (two interceptions, seven passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss) matched Johnson's disruptive ability last year. Of course, after those two, the pickings are slim in terms of proven ability.
Right now, defining success for Iowa State is simple: Did the Cyclones make a bowl game? Did they pull a big upset? If the answers are both yes, it was a successful season. If one is a yes, it was a marginal success. As mentioned up top, though, ISU's schedule is all sorts of unforgiving: four top-12 opponents (three on the road), seven top-35 opponents (four on the road). Even with an upset or two, reaching bowl eligibility will require perfection against the likes of Tulsa, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Baylor, all of whom visit Ames this fall.
On multiple occasions, Paul Rhoads has proclaimed this to be his deepest, most talented Iowa State team. And maybe that's true. But I'm struggling to see it. For every intriguing unit (running back, linebacker), there is an equal and opposite concern (receiving corps, defensive line), and last year's two strongest units (offensive line and secondary) each suffered pretty strong losses. Depth sneaks up on you -- you don't know you have it until you lose key contributors and get better anyway. And perhaps that's what we'll see this year in Ames. Perhaps the receiving corps finally begins to produce multiple dangerous weapons, perhaps the defensive back will absorb the losses of Leonard Johnson and Ter'Ran Benton with no drop-off, and perhaps the defensive line will get better with some new blood. But as I've said before, give me a few "if's" and I can make anybody good.
I have no reason to doubt that Rhoads will again win at least four or five games and pull an upset or two, but with a brutal schedule and so many question marks, I find myself in need of convincing with this year's Cyclones squad, no matter how much I want Rhoads to succeed.
For more on Clones football, visit Iowa State blog Wide Right & Natty Lite.
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