Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 25 Iowa State.
It’s tossed and turned; it’s grunted and kicked; it’s fucked and bucked; but after seven glorious months of sleep, college football is officially awake. And where better to start the only poll that matters than with the team that matters least.
Iowa State is a prime example of the fact that longevity, on its own, does not breed success. Despite being one of the first programs to join what would become the Big 6 (which turned into the Big Eight and is now the Big 12) back in 1908—Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State rounded out the bunch that previously made up the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association—the Cyclones have never been truly sustained any success that fell their way. They’ve posted a winning percentage over .500 just 42 times in 120 years; of the top 10 finishes in program history, seven came before the year 1915; and they’ve managed to capture a conference title just twice (1911 and 1912) in over a century of playing college ball.
Plain and simple, Iowa State is a not a good football program—the Cyclones aren’t quite the worst of the worst, but they definitely at least share the sought-after title of college football’s most mediocre Power Five program. There’s a thin line between mediocrity and just simply sucking ass, a la Duke 2000-2008; Iowa State tap dances on this line, as it will occasionally flash its fans with a sliver of light when it strings together a couple five-, six-, or seven-win seasons, only to inevitably follow it by at least three-to-four years of blindly bumping into Kansas and the floor in dark, damp basement of the Big 12.
This is the part where I say “BUT!” and tell you about the new game-changing coach who’s going to really shake things up and get Iowa State maybe, possibly headed in the Right Direction, or rave about their latest recruit that could really start a wave incoming talent. This does not appear to be happening, so I will save the inspiration for a fan base that is young and dumb enough to believe it—Cyclones fans, like my beloved N.C. State masochists, are (or at least should be) immune to the vile disease known commonly as hope.
That’s not to say that they aren’t in capable hands, though. Matt Campbell enters his second year at the helm, fresh off an initial campaign that ended with his team 3-9, the same record the program finished with in 2015 and 2013 (they went 2-10 in 2014). The 37-year-old Ohio native is on the younger side, but already boasts a solid four-year run as Toldeo’s head coach on his résumé. There, he went from run-game coordinator to head coach in two years; he then proceeded to lead the Rockets to a 35-15 slate and two conference crowns in four full seasons. But the incredible MACtion was not for long, unfortunately, as Campbell jumped ship once Paul Rhoads got tossed overboard at Iowa State in late 2015.
Through a year-and-a-half on the recruiting trail, Campbell’s haul has been, like the program was decades before him, fairly mediocre. His Class of 2017 is ranked 44th per Rivals, 50th per Scout, and 53rd per 24/7—this sounds fine, until you remember that while there are 129 active FBS teams competing for a postseason slot this year, just 64 of them are Power Five programs with access to top-end facilities and truckloads of television dollars. The Cyclones have regularly been out-recruited by Group of Five squads for the past seven years (and likely longer than that), so the 2016 season-opening loss to Northern fucking Iowa shouldn’t have been a shock to anyone.
There were better outings in Campbell’s first season, of course. The Cyclones held Texas Tech’s prolific aerial attack in check the entire afternoon, roasting Kliff Kingsbury’s squad 66-10; they also played Baylor (pre-six-game losing streak) within three points and had Oklahoma in a one-score game in the fourth quarter. But the Cyclones started the season 1-8 for a reason—they didn’t (and don’t) have enough high-quality recruits to hang with the Big 12's top or middle tier, and most of the quality players they did have played like shit.
As the plague of hope is unrelenting, I will note that some of those same prospects that struggled last season are returning for another go-round, and chances are they won’t be as terrible again. The Cyclones return six starters apiece on defense and offense this season, with the majority of notable faces coming of the offensive side of the ball.
Up front, Iowa State gets left tackle Jake Campos, who missed the whole season after breaking his leg in training camp last year, back on the offensive line. Unfortunately, the team also lost the majority of last year’s starters to graduation. Establishing a core rotation will be key for the Cyclones, as they’ll be looking to build upon the late-season success that quarterback Jacob Park had while carving out enough room to ensure the run game takes at least a little step forward.
The Cyclones had the good fortune of fielding a trio of 500-yard rushers last season in quarterback Joel Lanning and backs Mike Warren and David Montgomery. The two backs were granted fairly even turns in the backfield (Montgomery had 109 carries; Warren ran 134 times), and while it turned out fine, it wasn’t the plan. The plan was for Warren to be The Man, while Montgomery, a freshman in 2016, spent time developing behind the explosive sophomore. Warren, currently in his third year, was truly, actually good in his rookie season—he rushed for 1,339 yards and five scores, earning him Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. Last year, though, he dealt with pesky ankle injury that sidelined him and was publicly admonished by Campbell with regards to his practice habits.
If Warren can recapture his 2015 form, then the Cyclones might actually have something of a 1-2 punch in him and Montgomery; add in receiver Allen Lazard, who is a legitimate NFL prospect with the height and speed to take advantage of the Big 12's many porous passing defenses, and you actually might raise an eyebrow at the Iowa State skill positions. Lazard will be joined by senior slot receiver Trever Ryen, sophomore Deshaunte Jones, who caught 37 balls in his rookie season, and Matthew Eaton, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Pearl River Community College who will give the Cyclones another height advantage on the end and in the redzone. Ideally, this group should be enough to take the any double-team heat off of Lazard; realistically, Lazard will be both the star and the only true threat for Big 12 secondaries.
Defensively, well, there’s just not much to say. Ignoring whatever the fuck it was that Texas Tech put on the field, Iowa State was rivaled only by Kansas in terms of shitty Big 12 defenses last year, allowing 31.3 points per game (yes, I know Texas allowed slightly more, but it did so with talent, meaning there is hope; Iowa State, like I said, can claim neither talent nor hope.) They’re godawful against the run, and likely will be again this year given the youth on their defensive line. The only positive note I can add is that Lanning wasn’t completely incompetent at running through and past people as a quarterback, so maybe he’ll be okay at his new middle linebacker spot.
A Guy To Know
Allen Lazard was just about the only good thing Iowa State had going for it last year; while Warren can be expected to be closer to his 2015 form and thus be an actual above-replacement player, the Cyclones’ hulking, 6-foot-5 aerial threat will once again be the best case anyone can make for actually tuning in to an Iowa State football game.
An honest-to-God, homegrown Iowan four-star prospect, Lazard fielded offers from Stanford, Notre Dame, and Nebraska, among others, as a high school senior; he opted to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother, committing to the Cyclones. Since then, Lazard’s spent the past three years developing into one of the Big 12's premier pass-catchers. Lazard has steadily improved each season, racking up 593 yards as a freshman and 808 as a sophomore; last season, he finished with 1,018 yards and seven scores on 69 catches, ranking sixth in the conference in receptions and fifth in receiving yards.
The 2016 first-team All-Big 12 receiver is everything one could want out of a larger wideout—he has the frame and armspan, the speed (he’s reportedly been hand-timed running a 4.4), and the open-field agility to rack up a handful of yards after catch. Heading into the 2017 draft, Lazard was projected to go anywhere from the fifth round to undrafted; if he can have another productive season in Ames and the Cyclones can implement some increased versatility in his route options, Lazard could very easily be working his way on an NFL depth chart come this time next year.
Can They Make The Playoff?
Not a chance in hell. The best the Cyclones can hope for this year is somehow scraping together six wins and sending a much-deserving Lazard to a meaningless bowl game. Games against Northern Iowa, Akron, Kansas, and Texas Tech should be winnable—if Iowa State wants to go bowling, though, it’s going to have to beat an actual Big 12 team, which, as of the past four years, is not a safe bet.
Is The Coach A Dick?
Campbell is not a dick, as far as I can tell. His players, both at Toledo and last year’s Iowa State crew, seem to enjoy him, and he’s well liked among his Big 12 peers. It probably helps that opposing coaches recognize he’s both 1) new to Big Football and 2) saddled with a project that is going to require numerous repairs before it actually starts to be a real threat.
However, that doesn’t mean Ames is dick-free. Athletic director Jamie Pollard steps up to the plate for the Cyclones—although the guy is bold enough to call a press conference to shit on the Big 12 and its officials, he’s also the local asshole that gets tossed from dang high school basketball games for arguing with the refs, and one of dozens of dickhead ADs that offer the following hollow, shameless sentiment when confronted with the stark inequity that envelops college football:
“Unionization? They’re not employees so I don’t believe that’s the right pathway to ultimately achieving, maybe, what some believe needs to be done,” Pollard says. “We’re all committed to the wellness of our student athletes and we continue to do a lot for that. That, unfortunately, probably doesn’t get talked about enough.”
I’m sure Pollard and Iowa State do lots of nice things for their athletes; he’s still a dick.
Sept. 2: Northern Iowa
Sept. 9: Iowa
Sept. 16: @ Akron
Sept. 28: Texas
Oct. 7: @ Oklahoma
Oct. 14: Kansas
Oct. 21: @ Texas Tech
Oct. 28: TCU
Nov. 4: @ West Virginia
Nov. 11: Oklahoma State
Nov. 18: @ Baylor
Nov. 25: @ Kansas State