It's finally here.
The long, dark days of the offseason have officially given way to the buildup to the first Iowa State football matchup of the season - game week.
For outsiders, it's understandably tough to realize why Cyclone fans would be excited to get the season underway... After all, in its history, the ISU football program has lost more games than it's won (510-620-46 all-time record) and it's only gone 29-45 under current head coach, Paul Rhoads.
Last year's 2-10 mark didn't help.
But to hell with those stats... This season begins with a clean slate. And while that slate will soon feature a strength of schedule ranked in the top 20 in the nation (via Phil Steele), it sets up perfectly for this year's team to gain some positive momentum in the first few weeks.
Iowa State will square off against (presumably) the easiest five opponents on its schedule to start the season. It starts off with two games in newly-renovated Jack Trice Stadium against in-state foes UNI and Iowa before going on the road to take on Toledo. Once the non-conference games are completed, the Cyclones return home to play Kansas, then travel to Lubbock to go against Texas Tech.
Not exactly murderer's row.
If ISU can get through that stretch of games with at least four wins, a return to a bowl game for the first time since the 2012 Liberty Bowl isn't out of the question, especially if the Cyclones can stay healthy. Iowa State has dealt with a number of influential injuries over the past few years; from star linebacker Jake Knott ending his career early due to a shoulder issue in 2012, to leading receiver Quenton Bundrage tearing his ACL on the third play of the 2014 season (and a whole lot more in-between).
There's a lot of "ifs" when it comes to ISU football for 2015, but what if those "ifs" all happen and the stars align in Rhoads' seventh season?
What if the offensive line holds together and gives Sam B. Richardson time to throw? What if time to throw, plus a talented group of wide receivers, makes ISU one of the better passing offenses in the Big 12? What if being a threat in the passing game opens up holes for the running backs to gallop through?
And on the defensive side of the ball, what if Demond Tucker meets or exceeds the hype and wreaks havoc from the defensive line? What if the ability to force turnovers from the early years of the Rhoads era returns? What if the switch to a 3-4 "clicks" for the players and the defense improves by leaps and bounds?
Reports from spring and fall camps indicate that this group of Cyclones have much better team unity and chemistry than the last couple squads. That alone is reason enough for Iowa State fans to feel optimistic. In a world filled with politically watered-down answers and coach speak, I find it hard to believe that Coach Rhoads would mention a better sense of team without it being true.
The Tweet below from former ISU running back Jeff Woody speaks volumes in the culture department.
This type of stuff didn't happen two seasons ago (my senior year) and a bet it didn't happen last year. Great sign. https://t.co/zY7r65WYCN— Jeff Woody (@jwoody32) August 19, 2015
And for those of you who'd like to save a click, here's what Woody was referencing:
This is how we feel after a two-a-day practice lol pic.twitter.com/MmRhGRutoO— Quenton Bundrage (@QuoteOnKwote) August 19, 2015
When you feel good, you play good. Simple formula, right?
That's not an unfamiliar concept to Cyclone Nation. Former basketball coach Fred Hoiberg often spoke of his desire to instill confidence in his players on the court so they'd be able to perform to their best ability.
The confidence doesn't necessarily have to come from the coach in the case of this year's football team... If it's from teammates, that's the ideal scenario.
So if the players are getting along and they're focused on turning the ISU football program around, why shouldn't you be excited as this season gets underway? Sure, Iowa State might not have as much talent as the top tier teams in the conference, but if the team with more talent always won, they wouldn't play the games on Saturdays in the fall.
As Cyclone fans, we've conditioned ourselves to weather the inevitable nut kick. It comes in many forms:
A blunder by our team...
A great play from an opposing team...
A blown call by the officials...
But maybe it's time to just nut up and enjoy this football season for what comes with it - the return of tailgating, a team that will likely play with a "nothing to lose" mindset, and the privilege of being an Iowa State fan. The results on the field won't always be what we'd prefer, but hey... We can continue to prove that Cyclone Nation is the most loyal group in the nation.
That new south endzone? Pack it. Those tailgating lots? Fill them. Those players? Support them. Because you never know, this could be the year that Iowa State football goes against the typical Cyclone grain.
So do your best to get SOME work done this week, and don't forget to fill up your fridges and coolers of your favorite booze on Friday night. Football season is back and Iowa State is undefeated.
All aboard the hype train.