When I previewed Iowa State this summer, I said that a return bowl trip would be difficult this season due to a murderers row schedule. Turns out that once again, I underestimated Paul Rhoads and Iowa State, as the Cyclones enter the month of November needing just one win to become bowl eligible. In fact, they control their destiny. Win all of their games this month, and they are Big XII North Champions. (And when you consider that Baylor is in the same position, imagine the shudders going through Dan Beebe at the thought of a Iowa State-Baylor matchup for the final Big XII Championship!)
The Cyclones pulled off another upset two weeks ago by defeating Texas in Austin. They didn't need a bunch of turnovers; they dominated the Longhorns on both sides of the ball. The Cyclones don't stand out in any one area; they rank 52nd nationally in rushing, but only 98th in total offense. Alexander Robinson is the leading rusher for the Cyclones, ranking 6th in the conference at 92 yards in conference games. Austen Arnaud completes 57% of his passes, with 10 touchdowns but 8 interceptions. Tight end Collin Franklin has bounced back from injury to lead the Cyclones with 37 receptions for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Robinson is tied with wide receivers Darius Darks and Jake Williams with 21 receptions each.
Defensively, the Cyclones statistically rank in the lower half of the conference almost across the board: 10th in rushing defense, 9th in scoring defense, 8th in total defense, though 6th in pass defense. But they lead in one category: turnover margin. (Remember last year?) So while Nebraska should be able to run against Iowa State, it will be even more important to hold onto the ball.
While this looks like a game that Nebraska should win, that's not assured. Iowa State has always presented Nebraska a challenge in Ames, no matter how good the Huskers think they are. Remember the last time Nebraska went to Ames with a freshman quarterback and national recognition after a big victory? It was 1992, and the star of the game wasn't Tommie Frazier, but a fifth-year senior named Marv Seiler starting his first game at quarterback. The result was a stunning and hard to believe upset, as the Cyclones won 19-10.
So even though Nebraska is favored to win, they'll need to play well to win.
Iowa State's 9-7 victory over Nebraska was one of the biggest upsets of last season. What makes it even more of an upset is the fact that Iowa State's top two offensive players didn't play. What was not a fluke was how hard those Cyclones played that day. While some of those turnovers could be considered flukes (such as Niles Paul's fumble inside the ten yard line), the effort put forth by Iowa State to get to those loose footballs was not.
Last season, the Cyclones finished the season 7-6, winning the Insight Bowl against Minnesota. Quite an improvement over 2-10 in 2008, and quite a testament to Paul Rhoads' coaching ability.
On offense, Austen Arnaud returns as the Cyclones quarterback. In his third offense in four years with the Cyclones, Arnaud had middling success last season, completing 59% of his passes for 2,015 yards and 14 touchdowns. But 13 interceptions last year were a problem. By all accounts, Arnaud had a solid spring practice and people around the Iowa State football program expect big things from him this season. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman's spread offense would seem to be a good fit with Arnaud's physical skills, so developing poise and confidence might lead to big things on offense.
The other offensive weapon that missed the Nebraska game last season was running back Alexander Robinson, who rushed for 1,195 yards and six touchdowns in 2009. Combined with Arnaud's rushing, the Cyclones finished fourth in the Big XII in rushing in 2009. Remember former Florida running back Bo Williams? He's recovering from offseason knee surgery and won't practice until school starts later this month. The former "Rivals 250" prospect had two carries for 50 yards last season. Sophomore Beau Blankenship and redshirt freshman James White are getting more mention as Robinson's backups.
At receiver, both Darius Darks and Jake Williams return to start. Darks fought through a hamstring injury to finish fourth on the team with 28 catches. Williams, a former walk-on, was the steadiest receiver last year, catching 36 passes last season including that 47 yard jump ball for the winning touchdown in Lincoln. Junior Sedrick Johnson was hampered by an ankle injury most of last season, limiting to just seven catches last season. He has the potential to be a deep threat.
Three starters return on the offensive line, led by junior left tackle Kelechi Osemele, who earned second team all-Big XII last season. Senior Ben Lamaack moves to center from right guard, and senior Alex Alvarez returns at left guard.
On defense, only four starters return, but get back two others from injuries. On the line, senior defensive end Rashawn Parker returns from an ACL injury, while sophomore tackle Jake McDonough appears to be recovered from an illness that forced him to lose fifty pounds last season. Junior defensive end Patrick Neal is undersized former tight end who's a speed rusher. The big man in the middle is 279 pound nose tackle Bailey Johnson, who had 22 tackles last season.
The Cyclones will need to replace all three linebackers. Senior Matt Tau'fo'ou was a junior college all-American, but didn't play much behind first team all-Big XII linebacker Jesse Smith last season. Sophomores A.J. Klein and Jake Knott are expected to start on the outside.
Junior cornerback Leonard Johnson is a sure tackler, but the former freshman all-American isn't the strongest in coverage. He loves to specialize in big hits and force turnovers, like the fumble he forced on Zac Lee. Junior cornerback Ter'ron Benton's season ended in Lincoln after he suffered a broken leg. Up to then, he was having a good season with 41 tackles. Senior safety David Sims was Big XII defensive newcomer of the year last year with 88 tackles, five stolen passes, and one stolen credit card. That last stat will keep Sims off the field for the season opener against Northern Illinois. Senior safety Michael O'Connell is expected to start after totaling 43 tackles last year as a backup.
A murderer's row schedule is going to make another return trip to a bowl game difficult in 2010. A three-week gauntlet with #24 Utah (USA Today Coaches Poll), followed by road trips to #8 Oklahoma and #4 Texas is about as tough of a stretch as you could ask for. Then add in a September game against preseason #10 Iowa, and of course, a November date against #9 Nebraska, and you've got five really tough games on the schedule. But I wouldn't be surprised if Iowa State doesn't pull off an upset or two this season.
I mean...who wouldn't play hard for a coach like this?