Sunday, July 3, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Iowa State

I'm continuing the countdown to the 2011 college football season. With 9 weeks to go until the season, here's a look at the team picked to finish 9th, the Iowa State Cyclones.

The Program

My image of the Iowa State program is a very overmatched team struggling and scrapping bravely against far superior competition. This is pretty much typified each year in the Cy-Hawk rivalry game with Iowa, those snobby (or more refined, depending on which side you're on) Hawkeyes across the state. Iowa usually has more talent, but the Cyclones remain competitive with their tenacity. Since 1998, Iowa State actually holds a one-game edge in the series (7-6), although Iowa has now won three straight. Cyclones wring every last ounce of effort out of themselves. Cyclones hang on and make open-field tackles when they can catch their opponent. However, Cyclones do not win much, historically.

Here's the kicker: Iowa State has never won an outright conference title in football. Their have two shared Missouri Valley Conference titles, in 1911 and 1912, giving them a current run of title futility that rivals the Cubs. They have but two nine-win seasons, 94 years apart (9-1 in 1906, 9-3 in 2000). They could have won the weak Big 12 North in 2004, needing only a home win over a Missouri team that had lost five straight, but of course they could not get it done, losing in overtime. (To be fair, they almost surely would have gotten crushed by Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, but still, just to play in that game would have been huge for ISU.

Iowa State is 492-590-46 all-time, but they can always dream. For years, the Big Eight champion would play in the Orange Bowl, often with national title implications. Usually the titans Nebraska and Oklahoma would make the majority of the trips, with Colorado occasionally breaking through. Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel talked one time in a column about his Big Eight memories. It is a beautiful piece, and this bit pretty much sums up Iowa State's role in the Big Eight/12:

"This one's for (coach) Jim Walden, the realist and the dreamer, and that picture of the Orange Bowl he kept on the wall behind his Iowa State desk."

Jim Walden never coached the Cyclones in the Orange Bowl.

Best Cyclone Ever: Troy Davis, RB

Would you believe an Iowa State Cyclone (playing on a 2-9 team, no less) very nearly won the Heisman trophy in 1996? It's true, and that player, running back Troy Davis, is my pick for the best player in Iowa State history. Playing on poor teams his entire career, Davis posted two of the more remarkable seasons by a running back in college football history.

After playing sparingly in his first season, 1994, Davis became the first player in NCAA I-A history to rush for 2,000 yards in two different seasons, despite his team finishing last every year he played. (Also keep in mind he did this while playing only 11 games each season). He ran for 2,010 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior, going to New York as a Heisman finalist and finishing fifth, despite playing on a team that went 3-8 (1-6 in Big Eight play).

Then, as a senior, Davis ran for 2,185 yards and 21 touchdowns, even though the only I-A (now FBS) team that Iowa State beat that year was Missouri. Davis' Cyclones went 1-7 in Big 12 play, but he was still named the first ever Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. He narrowly lost the 1996 Heisman to Danny Wuerffel, 1,363 points to 1,174. He supposedly won three regions, but lost by heavy margins in the South. Davis received 209 first-place votes.

Davis was a consensus All-American at running back in '95 and '96, those two magical seasons. He had 21 100-yard games and nine 200-yard games. He also holds ISU rushing records for a game (378 vs. Missouri), season (2,185 in his senior season) and career (4,382). Despite playing for poor teams, Davis is likely the best to ever put on a Cyclone uniform.

2011 Outlook

This is coach Paul Rhoads' third season at Iowa State, and he appears to be building something, or at very least fielding teams of which Cyclone fans can be proud. In his first year, as 20-point underdogs, they scored a massive upset win at Nebraska. (Eight NU turnovers, including an incomprehensible four turnovers inside the five-yard line, were a massive contribution to the ISU win.) In Rhoads' second year, again as 20-point underdogs, the Cyclones scored a stunning win at Texas, their first ever against the Longhorns. Iowa's governor called it "historic."

Those huge upsets helped Rhoads exceed expectations in each of his first two years, going 7-6 with a bowl win in 2009 while falling to 5-7 last year. This year appears to be a rebuilding effort, with ISU needing to replace both successful QB Austen Arnaud (school's second-leading all-time passer) and running back Alexander Robinson.

The quarterback battle will likely come down to Jerome Tiller, last seen piloting the Cyclone offense in their shutout loss against Missouri, and junior college transfer Steele Jantz Jr. Iowa State's leading returning rusher, Shontrelle Johnson, ran for 218 yards last year. He may do most of his damage as a kick returner. The bruising Jeff Woody offers a change of pace. Running behind mountainous offensive tackle Kelechi Osemele (6-6, 354 lbs.) would probably be a good idea.

However, the offense likely won't carry this team very far. It'll be on the defense to keep the Cyclones in games, with perhaps Johnson or punt returner Josh Lenz taking a kick to the house to turn the tide. Linebackers (strength of the team) Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, along with cornerback Leonard Johnson and defensive linemen Stephen Ruempolhamer provide the makings of a serviceable defense. They make the tackles they can and seemed to get turnovers in key spots over the past two years. But the overall talent level doesn't appear to be great, at least based on what I read, and memories of the Cyclones giving up 120 points over two weeks against Utah and Oklahoma are still poignant.

The big question: Can Rhoads lead them back to a bowl game? Even in this era of a bloated bowl schedule (70 teams play in bowl games), making the postseason still means something at Iowa State. It's just difficult given that they now play nine conference games, plus they always have to play Iowa, ensuring 10 of their 12 games will be against schools from BCS conferences. This year is especially tough, since five of the nine league games are on the road, also play a nonconference game at Connecticut (defending Big East champs, for whatever that's worth).

The Cyclones must win the home game with Kansas, but every other conference game seems like a mountain to climb. Road games are tough, and the other three home games are Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State (That game is Nov. 18; the Cyclones will need a tremendous effort from Coach Winter to disrupt the Cowboys' high-powered offense.) In any event, with the rebuilding effort and rugged schedule, my guess is that the Cyclones will not get to 6-6 and make a bowl game. But Rhoads has made a lot of guessers wrong, and if his teams scores its annual huge upset, then the math works a lot better for the Cyclones.

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