I can’t remember a single Iowa State football season that’s excited me as much as this one. Hell, I’m not sure if I can name a season in any sport that I’ve ever been more excited for than this football season.
It’s got all of the pieces that make a great sports story. A budding star at quarterback, a bunch of young hotshots at running back and receiver, an underdog offensive line looking to buck the trend, a suffocating defense capable of bringing almost any opposing offense to its knees, and a young coach looking to seat himself at the table of the elite.
Exactly what that story is going to look like is anybody’s guess. Who (or what) can deliver us to the warm, euphoric embrace of a Dr. Seuss novel, or sentence us to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy? Let’s find out.
1) Who is the most important player on offense this season?
I desperately want to pick somebody like Breece Hall, Tarique Milton, Charlie Kolar, but the quarterback is referred to as the most important position in sports for a reason. More importantly, Iowa State has a pretty good quarterback.
Brock Purdy single-handedly transformed the Cyclone offense last season while mostly flying by the seat of his pants. His improvisation and accuracy granted him early success, and as the season went on, he gained noticeable confidence and more consistently stood in the pocket and delivered strikes downfield, often to great success.
Now that he’s had an entire offseason to prepare as the starter, it’s fair to expect Brock to continue to progress and establish himself as one of the preeminent quarterbacks in all of college football. If he does that, the Cyclones WILL be in for a special season.
2) Who is the most important player on defense this season?
In my mind, there are three obvious candidates here, and one dark horse. Ray Lima, Mike Rose, and Greg Eisworth are the obvious candidates, as they’re probably the most important players at their respective levels of the difference. My dark horse is Will McDonald, whose job at the SAM linebacker will involve coverage, run stopping, and pass rushing from the edge. Given his raw talent and athletic ability, he has the chance to introduce complete and total chaos into the opposing offensive scheme.
However, Greg Eisworth is the most important player on the defense this season. Ray Lima and Mike Rose are both crucial cogs within their position groups and the defense as a whole, but they both have backups that are nearly as capable as they are, and will be able to sub off the field with little to no dropoff in overall defensive performance. Eisworth’s STAR position doesn’t necessarily have that same kind of depth.
When Eisworth needs a break, the defense has a lot of options for filling his spot on the field, whether it be with another linebacker, a four-down front, or an extra deep safety. However, there really isn’t another player on the roster quite as versatile as Greg Eisworth when it comes to playing in the back seven. Quality play from the STAR position is what allows Iowa State’s defensive scheme to elevate from good to elite, and the Cyclone defense will need to be elite if they hope to compete for a conference title.
3) What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
Hopefully, the biggest change from 2018 to 2019 is the offensive line. The line has needed to improve for a long time, and will need to build on the improvement we saw near the end of 2018 when the Cyclone offensive line (aside from the false start penalties) did a great job enforcing their will and opening up holes for David Montgomery to run through.
Do I think they **will** be the biggest change? I’d have to lean no. I think the offensive line is still one year and a few personnel changes away from being the type of unit that’s a bonafide strength on the team (really hope I’m wrong here). Thus, I think the biggest change we’ll see is in the scheme of the passing game.
For basically half a decade, the offense has centered around getting the ball into the hands of its two or three best players to generate a huge chunk of the overall production. This was easy to do with players like David Montgomery, Allen Lazard, and Hakeem Butler, but we don’t really know yet if this offense has that type of player waiting to assume their role as an alpha.
Could Tarique Milton, Deshaunte Jones, Charlie Kolar, Breece Hall, or someone else establish themselves as the new go-to guy? Absolutely, and it wouldn’t shock me at all to see that happen. However, at least early in the season, I would expect to see a relatively large number of players record a carry or reception as Brock Purdy and the coaching staff will be spreading the ball around to the plethora of weapons they have at their disposal.
4) What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?
If you asked me this question a month ago, I probably would have said Iowa without much hesitation. The Cyclones haven’t secured the CyHawk Trophy in a hot minute, and this would be a quality nonconference win that would allow Iowa State to head into conference play undefeated with their sights set on one-loss or undefeated showdown with the Sooners in November.
However, as I’ve thought about it more and more, I think the game at Baylor is currently the most important game on the schedule. Baylor is generally considered to be somewhere between the 4th and 6th-best team in the Big 12, and likely presents the most difficult conference road game on the schedule outside of Oklahoma. With the Sooners likely contending at the top of the conference once again, Iowa State probably won’t need to snag a win in Norman to remain in contention for a title game berth.
Snagging a big road win in Waco would go a long way toward keeping Iowa State at the top of the conference, as they’ll likely be favored the next four games before the showdown in Norman, as well as the three following games. Returning to Ames with an 8-1 record for the Texas game on November 16th would likely make that game a pseudo-semifinal with the winner advancing to Arlington to face OU.
5) Final record an bowl prediction?
Iowa State is currently favored in all but two games this season: at Baylor, and at Oklahoma. A few other games on the schedule will essentially be coin flips: Iowa, TCU, and Texas. Assuming the Cyclones take care of business against everyone else, that puts us at a minimum of 7-5. Not bad, but probably a slight disappointment to a lot of fans. However, it’s very unlikely that Iowa State loses every coin flip game.
Let’s address those coin flips first.
This year’s CyHawk game will take place in Ames, and Iowa State is currently favored by a couple points. The Hawkeyes lost a couple tight ends and defensive lineman to the NFL, but this Iowa we’re talking about. They’re going to be good up front on both sides of the ball, and they’re going to try to run, and run, and run, and run, and throw a 6-yard out to a tight end, and run, and run, and run.
Last year, Kyle Kempt went down on the first offensive series of the game, but the glaring problem the entire game was the offensive line getting absolutely torched. The balance has shifted significantly towards the middle, with Iowa State losing a couple really talented players on the defensive line, and Iowa State bringing every starter back from last season, but has it shifted enough? Iowa still has A.J. Epenesa, who is probably the best defensive end in college football, and will likely keep Bryce Meeker up at night for the next month or so.
In the end, I think Iowa losing T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to the NFL will hurt, and the salty Cyclone defense will force Nate Stanley to beat them in the vertical passing game, which he has struggled mightily with in his career. It’s going to be a low-scoring game like last year, but I think Iowa will be on the losing end here.
The Horned Frogs will be bringing their trademark elite defense to Ames, along with a couple elite skill position players in Jalen Reagor and Darius Anderson. The entire question with TCU this season is their quarterback situation. Max Duggan and Alex Delton have apparently set themselves apart from the rest, but Duggan is just a true freshman, and Delton was wildly inconsistent at Kansas State. If TCU gets even decent quarterback play, they have the talent everywhere else to be a really dangerous team.
However, this matchup is still fairly early in the conference season, and whoever the starting quarterback will be getting more comfortable, but they’ll be facing the only defense in the Big 12 that’s as good or better than their own.
Make no mistake, the Cyclones have laid an egg in each of the last two games against Texas, but both of those games do have some important context that needs to be accounted for. The 2017 was Jacob Park’s last game as a Cyclone, and he was far and away the worst offensive player that night. Last year, David Montgomery was suspended for the first half, and the offense was constantly forced to dig itself out of holes that could have been avoided with a solid running game.
The Cyclones are far more equipped to handle the Horns this year, and a crisp mid-November evening could be just the time to take down Texas and all but secure a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
I’m going to predict the game at Oklahoma as a loss because it probably won’t really matter in the context of the conference race, and Norman is just a really difficult place to play against a team that’s usually really good.
Baylor will likely be favored, but I’m not as high on Charlie Brewer as most people, and that defense has a long way to go before I’m going to be scared of it. Iowa State has faced and conquered a bunch of offensive juggernauts under Matt Campbell, and this one is no different.
8-4 (6-3), 3rd overall in Big 12
11-1 (8-1), Conference Championship berth.