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On entering the most important stretch of the Matt Campbell era

Now the real grind begins.

Iowa State v TCU Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

At about 6:30 PM last November 26th, a dejected Iowa State walked off the field at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth after arguably the worst loss of the Matt Campbell era, a 62-14 blowout that never even felt that close.

Purely based on score, it certainly was the worst loss of the era, but it was a lost season at that point with bowl eligibility firmly out of reach and the opponent was an undefeated TCU team that was desperate to finish the regular season convincingly undefeated and in prime position for a playoff berth.

The loss itself was not remotely surprising, and the offensively inept Cyclones losing by more than a couple of scores wasn’t necessarily Earth-shattering either, but the way the whole team seemingly threw in the white flag early on in the game pushed four consecutive bowl appearances and a Fiesta Bowl win into the far reaches of the rearview mirror.

It wasn’t just that the offense had managed only 14 points in the effort, but the Cyclone defense that had been downright elite for the entire season had allowed 62, a far departure from the low-scoring slugfests we’d become accustomed to seeing.

With that unceremonious final nail in the coffin, the Iowa State football program, and Matt Campbell, faced a crossroads. Either continue to beat their heads against a brick wall and try to recapture the magic of 2017-2020 with a lightly modified roster and scheme, or overhaul a unit that was clearly in a bad way with no clear path forward.

Matt Campbell chose the latter and said his goodbyes to a handful of longtime program figures, including offensive coordinator Tom Manning, offensive line coach Jeff Myers, strength and conditioning coach Dave Andrews, and quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon, among others. For a program modeled on consistency and continuity, such a drastic overhaul was completely uncharacteristic of Campbell’s tenure, even if it was desperately needed.

However, those staff changes don’t just signal an “enough of this, let’s try something else” strategy. They serve as a trailhead for what may be the greatest challenge Campbell has yet to face at Iowa State: converting early momentum into long-term sustainability.

We’ve seen coaches have early success at Iowa State before. Paul Rhoads and his famous “So Proud” speech after a 2009 upset of Nebraska in Lincoln carried program momentum all the way through the 2012 season, which saw Iowa State go to its third bowl game in four years. The run was marked by a few more monumental upsets and the general belief that Rhoads’ Cyclones were capable of upsetting anyone on any given Saturday.

By 2013, the magic had begun to fade and Rhoads’ teams looked more and more like a punching bag than an upset candidate. The outdated offensive scheme and coaching philosophies eventually caught up to Rhoads and a Big 12 that was overrun with cutting-edge air raid offenses began to leave Iowa State in the dust.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

But it wasn’t just a schematic issue that eventually ended Paul Rhoads’ run in Ames in 2015. There was also a significant talent issue, as his recruiting classes routinely ranked in the bottom three of the conference, and his old-school coaching mentality lacked the flexibility required to innovate and succeed in the Big 12. In the end, he didn’t have the horses to run with the rest of the pack and didn’t have the Xs and Os to make up for the lack of talent on the roster.

He was never able to convert that early momentum into sustained success.

Though he had a slightly longer build-up to success than Rhoads or Campbell did, Dan McCarney found success somewhat early in his tenure, including a 9-3 campaign that ended with an Bowl win over Pittsburgh, but eventually saw the writing on the wall, and resigned after a 4-8 season in 2006.

“As hard as it is to say that - especially because I know that this department is on the cusp of some special things - I realize it is time for different leadership,” said McCarney.

Obviously, Matt Campbell is in drastically different circumstances than Rhoads and McCarney were when their tenures started to turn downhill. Recruiting is in a much better place, with Iowa State now consistently middle of the pack in the conference for recruiting rankings and with a dramatically better average prospect rating.

The overall condition of the program is also in a much better place given the smorgasbord of new facilities that have been built over the last half-decade, as well as the impending CyTown, both of which position Iowa State as an attractive place to play and watch football for the foreseeable future. Independent of Matt Campbell, the Iowa State athletic department has never been in a better spot.

Yet, even with all of these advantages Campbell has to work with, the challenge he faces in 2023 and beyond are essentially the same that Rhoads and McCarney faced: converting early momentum into long-term success.

After a disappointing 2021 that saw a star-studded team finish well below expectations and a 2022 season that was deeply frustrating on many levels, even given the tempered expectations that arose from massive roster turnover, the 2023 and 2024 seasons are absolutely critical to reestablishing Iowa State as a program on the rise and not just a five-year fad.

From 2017 through 2020, Campbell had Iowa State in national headlines and regularly talked about as conference title contenders and, in the case of 2020, College Football Playoff contenders. For a small Power Five program like Iowa State, you can’t buy that kind of publicity. For the record, Campbell did a pretty good job turning that publicity and momentum into success on the recruiting trail, landing a few of the best classes in school history.

However, two consecutive lackluster seasons have Iowa State sitting at 10th in the preseason Big 12 poll, a far cry from being picked as dark horse title favorites just a few years ago. Iowa State isn’t the hot new thing anymore, but they’re also not being underestimated like they used to be. Despite the struggles, teams still respect Campbell’s teams to the point where there isn’t really any opportunity to catch someone off guard.

Matt Campbell is entering his eighth season in Ames. There’s no more selling the culture change that attracted underdog prospects like David Montgomery and Deshuante Jones. There’s no tidal wave of momentum and publicity to ride to record recruiting classes.

Just the program he’s built and is continuing to build. A true litmus test of the Matt Campbell coaching philosophy. That’s all he has to rely on now.

Fortunately, he’s not alone. Jon Heacock is probably the most underrated defensive coordinator in college football, despite being widely regarded as one of the best. He and the rest of the staff have put together an outrageously consistent defense that has been the backbone of this era of success for Iowa State football.

However, speaking of foundations, one of the biggest elephants in the room remains the offensive line and its relative lack of growth over the past seven seasons. The algorithms for crafting a great offensive lineman and offensive line are long and complex, but due to a combination of deficiencies in talent and physical and skill development, the Cyclone offensive line has largely been lackluster aside from a few flashes, one of which was the 2020 unit.

Many in and around the program believe that new offensive line coach Ryan Clanton may be the offensive line whisperer the program has desperately needed, but we won’t really know how true those rumors are until we see results on the field, and we may not even see the full realization of those results until late this fall or even 2024. Patience is key here.

This could be an opportune time to rant about the Cyclone special teams, which has become an unspeakably bad unit under Campbell, but there’s not much left to say here except that the third phase of the game must get better. You can’t preach a philosophy of “winning in the margins” and repeatedly lose in mind-bending ways that can only be described as “in the margins.”

Every single former special teams player I’ve ever talked to says special teams come down almost entirely to attitude and effort. Just having a bunch of dudes that want to go out there and hit somebody. Think Levi Peters and Rory Walling.

I’m not a coach or motivational speaker, so I don’t know what the key to motivating a 19-year-old to play special teams is, but what I do know is that lots of other programs have figured it out, and we need to do the same. Iowa State will never stop playing close games, and having a good special teams unit can help you win some of those.

But special teams, the offensive line, and the Xs and Os of a modern offense are all just pieces of the larger puzzle. The overwhelming, Lovecraftian problem to solve, which no Cyclone football coach has ever solved before, is figuring out how to convert that early momentum into long-term, sustainable success. It’s figuring out how to turn on the scramjets in the Darkstar after taking off and getting up to speed with the main engines.

Many people, including Matt Campbell himself, have described Iowa State as a place where winning isn’t easy, and it takes the right person with the right plan to do it. There isn’t some rich donor base of oil barons, lawyers, or doctors to pay for facilities or fund NIL initiatives. No stash of blue-chip recruits within shouting distance of campus.

Just a humble land grant school in the middle of a cornfield with a rabid fanbase that’s supported the program through thick and (a whole lot of) thin and a coach that, despite a horde of other schools and NFL teams attempting to pry him away, has stuck around in Ames to build something permanent.

Expectations for 2023 are likely to be fairly modest given the lack of success in 2022 and the overhaul of the offense staff, but the general belief is still that the program is headed in the right direction and that 2024 has a chance to be a real step forward to the future of the program. After a few “down” (have to keep this in perspective here) years, a successful season in 2024 (though 2023 would be nice), would be a sign that this new era of solid-to-good Iowa State football is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

If that isn’t what happens, we risk witnessing our beloved program squander an unprecedented era of success and fall back to the doldrums of the conference, a place neither you nor I have any interest in revisiting.

Between now and then stands a mountain of work for Matt Campbell and the Iowa State Cyclones - a mountain he’s undoubtedly motivated to climb.