In full disclosure, I thought of composing this piece after Iowa State’s 17-7 loss to the Texas Longhorns. It was hard to see evidence of progress after the Cyclone offense mustered up a mere seven points on national television. Matt Campbell made some fans a little uneasy just two days later.
Campbell on his players after loss to Texas: "You came in our locker room and there was not one guy upset." Says guys recognized the growth that is being made.— Dylan Montz (@dylanmontz) October 2, 2017
It made the Cyclone Twitter echo chamber go crazy questioning how much this team cared. Hint: no one cares more than the players and staff inside that locker room.
For me, this quote made me think. We see 60 minutes of football per week from our Cyclones. That is an extremely small portion of the week for a college football team. Matt Campbell is with his team everyday. What was he seeing that we weren’t? Apparently, some serious progress.
It was then that I thought back to a quote from Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs.
“But because progress as an organization isn't linear, that's coming, and we just don't let it bother us. I think it's important to just focus on what we're doing internally and understand that everything outside is really, no offense, just noise.”
Four years after this quote, the Chicago Cubs were enjoying their first World Series Championship in over 100 years. Progress isn’t linear in professional baseball or for many things in life, including college football.
Three weeks ago I planned to craft this as a reminder for a fan base struggling to find hope. Now it can help explain how a three win team can turn into a conference championship contender in just one season.
Every word that Matt Campbell has spoken since being introduced as Iowa State’s football coach in the winter of 2015 has indicated he has a plan. It was easy for fans to question whether it was the right call bringing an entire mid-major staff to the Big 12 Conference. Losing their very first game to FCS opponent Northern Iowa didn’t help. One week later, a 42-3 drubbing at the hands of in-state rival Iowa, left Cyclone Nation wondering whether things were actually going in reverse.
Campbell never wavered though. He insisted his goal was to put Iowa State in a position to compete for a Big 12 Championship. Much like Theo Epstein, Matt Campbell talked of his process repeatedly. “Raising the standard” he called it. After losing by three touchdowns to his first Big 12 opponent, it was hard to trust what this man’s standards were.
Then came a 44-10 victory over San Jose State. We saw Iowa State take a two touchdown lead into the fourth quarter against nationally ranked Baylor. A similar result played out against Oklahoma State on the road just one week later. After seemingly taking three steps back, the Cyclone appeared to be finally making some progress. A couple weeks later, “the process” treated Cyclone fans to a 66-10 victory over Texas Tech.
It was evident at the beginning of this season, the standard had clearly been raised. Fans were once again excited for this football team. Yet, after losses to Iowa and Texas the air had seemingly been let out of the balloon once again.
We all know what happened next. This team pulled off the biggest upset and win in school history, blitzed a hapless Kansas squad, and then held one of the nation’s best offenses to 13 points.
We’ve now seen the progress he has seen in practice. For some, they only see progress through wins and losses. While that is the purpose of the game, fixing Iowa State football isn’t an overnight task. This team and program has come a long way during the Campbell era. They also have a long way to go yet here they are competing for a spot in the Big 12 Conference championship game.
With three straight ranked opponents on the schedule, it is possible that progress doesn’t make its appearance to the naked eye. Remember, other college football teams (excluding Kansas) are improving as well.
Ninety-nine percent of us would have taken six wins and a bowl trip for this team. While a 1-4 finish would be hard to stomach, it is entirely possible and still accomplishes the goal of playing a 13th game.
On the bright side, it is entirely possible Iowa State knocks off the 4th ranked team in the nation, TCU, this Saturday in Ames. Crazier things have happened. Vegas doesn’t think it is too far fetched by tabbing the Horned Frogs a small seven point favorite. Win this game and Cyclone fans can start making preliminary plans for Dallas, Texas on December 2nd.
Should the Cyclones follow that up with a win at West Virginia. Kirk Herbstreit just might have to show his face in Ames for Iowa State’s tilt against Oklahoma State.
If you find yourself staring at the clock this week counting down the minutes to Saturday afternoon, you aren’t alone. Enjoy every minute of Iowa State being college football’s Cinderella this week and beyond. I have a feeling this team won’t fit the underdog role for long.
As you are planning your tailgate for Saturday, trying to convince yourself another upset is in the making you just might be correct. Remember progress isn’t always linear....sometimes growth can be exponential.