It doesn’t take a genius to see how much the Iowa State football program has changed -- mostly for the better -- in the past nine months. The much-anticipated first game of the Matt Campbell era is nearly here. I, along with every other Iowa State fan, have been chugging the Kool-Aid this offseason, telling anyone who will listen that Campbell can be the one to finally bring sustained success to Iowa State football.
But… what if he doesn’t? What if Matt Campbell isn’t the guy to get the Cyclones over the hump?
And, maybe more importantly, how soon will we know? Jamie Pollard has been very coach-friendly in his tenure as the Iowa State AD. He gave Paul Rhoads seven years to make the football program his own; Greg McDermott had a miserable four years as the basketball head coach, but was still able to leave on his own terms when he took the Creighton job.
Simply put, Pollard has earned a reputation as a patient AD who will give his coaches every chance to succeed. He’s a man who lives by the motto, “Fool me once, shame on you. Piss away a surefire win by running the ball when you should’ve taken a knee, shame on me.”
Because of this, Campbell won’t be on the hot seat when we preview the 2017, 2018, or even the 2019 season, even if he fails to live up to expectations in each of those years. But what represents a failure in year one, anyway?
Don’t Lose the “Gimmes”
As of today, there are three games Iowa State should definitely, completely, absolutely, 100% win: versus UNI, versus San Jose State, and at Kansas. None of those schools have the talent to beat Iowa State, even with how bad ISU has been over the past three years. Those three games are must-wins in year one of the Campbell era.
Losses to FCS and G5 schools are not acceptable. Unfortunately, they became the norm under Rhoads and that’s a big reason for his demise.
It doesn’t even have to be pretty! Just win!
For some reason, beating the likes of UNI, Tulsa, Toledo, North Dakota State, etc. became just as difficult as beating Big 12 teams for Rhoads. Going 1-2 in non-conference play MUST be a thing of the past.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves — we’re going to see several losses this season. Even the strongest Iowa State teams have lost three or four games, and this team will likely lose more than that. However, there’s a difference between A) losing because the other team is better than you, and B) losing because you made critical mistakes at crucial points in the game. The former is acceptable; the latter is what ruined multiple recent seasons before they even got started.
If Iowa State fans want to see progress, this is one area where we can find it right away. Last year’s team lost, by my count, three games because of dumb mistakes, whether the mistakes were made by the coaches or players (JUST TAKE A FREAKIN’ KNEE). Those mistakes cost Paul Rhoads his job and Matt Campbell was brought in to fix those problems.
Find a Fourth Win Somewhere
The first two points were non-negotiable. This one is a bit different.
I can see a situation where injuries and a lack of depth cripple the offensive line and make an upset that much harder. Ideally, an improved strength and conditioning program will help prevent injuries, but at some point every team deals with some bad luck.
That said, recent ISU teams have massively underachieved. While none of Rhoads’ final three teams were Big 12 title contenders, they were all better than their records indicated -- the results just weren’t there.
What Coach Campbell needs to do to show improvement from last season is pretty simple: sneak out a close win against a good opponent. The early Rhoads teams found a way to do that, like against Nebraska and Minnesota in his first season at the helm, against Iowa three separate times, and of course, the thriller over Oklahoma State in 2011.
Good teams find a way to win the close ones, and over the past three years, ISU has lost those close games. It’s time for an Iowa State team to step up and win. If Campbell can’t find a fourth win somewhere on the schedule, it’ll make it harder to look back on year one and call it a success.