USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Iowa State's 2013 season can be summed up in 13 seconds.
It's Oct. 19, and the Cyclones are at Floyd Casey Stadium to take on newfound power Baylor, once the program's best shot at a South Division victory – back in those heady days of divisional splits – and now the Big 12's quick-tempo bully, obliterating defensive game plans with a pace foreign to the conference's run-game roots.
It was over six minutes in, after the Bears' Antwan Goodley caught a four-yard touchdown pass to put ISU in a 7-0 hole. The ugliness was just beginning: Baylor would score, score, score and score again, taking a 64-0 lead with less than four minutes left in the final quarter.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Big 12
Then came the 13 seconds. The Cyclones go on a six-play, 57-yard, three-minute scoring drive to make it 64-7; the Bears' Corey Coleman then takes the ensuing kickoff return 97 yards to make it 71-7, giving BU a conference-game-record 64-point margin of victory.
It's a 13-second span that displayed the gap between the league's haves and its have-nots, to be blunt, and should as such be shown on a loop inside Iowa State's locker room, weight room and football offices until the Cyclones retake the field against North Dakota State on Aug. 30 – giving the Cyclones the sort of motivation needed to define this coming season in 13 games, not 13 seconds.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
For Rhoads, leading this team to the postseason marks his greatest challenge since 2009. Is it possible? Sure. Iowa State just needs to go 3-0 in non-conference play and beat Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia – or win two of that trio while landing its occasional win over a championship contender. Anything is possible under Rhoads and his staff. When it comes to 2013, however, it just doesn't seem likely.
In a nutshell: Six Big 12 teams won eight or more games; those six teams outscored the Cyclones by a combined 291-116. That's only a touch misleading: Iowa State played Texas (31-30) and Texas Tech (42-35) tight in the early going before plummeting, failing to put up any semblance of a fight in lopsided losses to Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma. The season was missing that upset win, obviously, but was also missing the in-conference competitiveness otherwise seen throughout Paul Rhoads' tenure. Place blame on a punch-free offense – 4.82 yards per play, ninth-worst among major-conference teams – and a witless defense, the latter a constant nuisance despite the presence of five senior starters. The defense allowed 432 points, a program low since 2003 and the third-worst total in school history.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: Wins against Kansas and West Virginia to end the regular season. Thanks to this finish, Rhoads continues to be the program's first coach since Jim Criner (1983-86) to have not suffered at least one season with 10 or more losses.
Low point: Baylor. Texas and Texas Tech were close. Still: Baylor.
Tidbit: There are four Football Bowl Subdivision or Football Championship Subdivision programs in the Hawkeye State: Drake, Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. Last fall marked the ninth time in program history that ISU had lost either two or all three of its games against these in-state rivals. In years when Drake was not on the schedule, the Cyclones have lost to both Iowa and Northern Iowa three times: 2013, 1994 and 1992. ISU lost to both Iowa and Drake in 1985, 1909 and 1901. Finally, Iowa State lost to both Northern Iowa and Drake only once, in 1900. This is a useless, waste-of-time tidbit that should appeal to no one.
Tidbit (shutout edition): The Cyclones' 34-0 win against Kansas was the program's first shutout in conference play since blanking Baylor 41-0 on Sept. 29, 2001. ISU has pitched eight shutouts altogether in the last 40 years: Northern Iowa (23-0) in 2004, Baylor in 2001, UNLV (24-0) in 1999, Ball State (38-0) in 1998, West Texas A&M (14-0) in 1984, Colorado State (69-0) in 1980, Iowa (31-0) in 1978 and Missouri (7-0) in 1977.
Tidbit (misspelled edition): An unscientific perusal of Twitter finds that Rhoades' last name has been misspelled in usage – as Rhodes, obviously – 23 times during the 2014 calendar year. I thought it would be more.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Unbreakable career MLB records
1. Wins (Cy Young, 511)
2. Consecutive games played (Cal Ripken, 2,623)
3. Shutouts (Walter Johnson, 110)
4. Games managed (Connie Mack, 7,755)
5. Triples (Sam Crawford, 309)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Mark Mangino took a three-year sabbatical after his exit at Kansas, spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren, before resurfacing as an assistant at Youngstown State, where his collegiate coaching career began. Now back in the Big 12, Mangino seems back to his old tricks: Iowa State's new coordinator is a fire-lighting, energy-creating dynamo, believe it or not, and the perfect fit for a team aiming for a proven offensive formula. If nothing else – and there's more, much more – Mangino can pilot a balanced, feed-the-weapons offense with ease; he's going to install an attack that stresses ISU's skill players, puts players into manageable, can-do situations and makes things as easy as possible on an unproven cast of quarterbacks. Rhoads made the Big 12's best assistant hire of the offseason.
What Mangino inherits is a solid cast of skill players at receiver, tight end and running back. The best of the bunch is senior tight end E.J. Bibbs (39 receptions for 462 yards), a clear all-conference contender with the potential for crooked numbers in Mangino's system. In addition to Bibbs, the Cyclones have a top receiver pair of junior Quenton Bundrage (48 for 676), the team's leading receiver and a third-down threat, and junior Jarvis West, a player Mangino wants to get into space. There's more: ISU returns junior Tad Ecby (22 for 223), sophomores P.J. Harris, Dondre Daley and D'Vario Montgomery and redshirt freshman Bryan Ajumobi. Oh, and there's four-star freshman Allen Lazard, who could've played anywhere – really, anywhere – but chose Rhoads and Iowa State. The receiver corps is the unquestioned strength of the entire team.
There's equal depth at running back, if less potential for production. The ground game will run through senior Aaron Wimberly (567 yards) and junior DeVondrick Nealy (158 yards), two of the three cogs in last year's attack. Beyond this pair stand junior Rob Standard, redshirt freshman Tyler Brown and, eventually, a pair of incoming freshmen. There won't be a high amount of touches beyond Wimberly and Nealy, but Standard's bigger frame should help him carve out a role as the Cyclones' short-yardage bruiser. Given Wimberly's off-and-on bouts with injury, ISU will need to go three deep at the position.
Between the injuries, the inexperience and a general lack of cohesiveness, let's just call last season one to forget for the Cyclones' offensive front. A year later, you can see a number of positives. One is senior center Tom Farniok, an all-conference favorite and the anchor of the entire offense, perhaps. In terms of next-level potential, Farniok is matched by junior left tackle Brock Dagel, who has worked hard to remake his physique for the rigors of the blind side. The good news along the interior is the competitive nature of the spring, which should translate to depth. ISU has five potential contributors at guard: Oni Omoile, Jamison Lalk, Daniel Burton and Ben Toth. Come August, it'll likely be Burton at right guard and either Omoile or Lalk at left guard. To me, the weak link is right tackle Jacob Gannon; if he doesn't improve, ISU needs to roll the dice with sophomore Jacob Dunning.
Defense: The defense is going to be … interesting. Not in a good way, mind you, unless you're a quarterback. Iowa State's defense is young, untested, short on proven quantities and devoid of playmakers, leaving coordinator Wally Burnham and his crew scrambling for answers in advance of the opener. Each level is more worrisome than the last: Iowa State's defensive line loses three starters, the linebacker corps lacks that annual all-conference contender and the secondary is ridiculously thin at safety – so it gets weaker the farther you move away from the line of scrimmage, and up the middle in particular. To call this the weakest defense in the Big 12 wouldn't adequately describe how far the Cyclones trail behind their next-closest competitor.
Even the bright spots are tempered by the realities of defending the Big 12's high-test offensive attacks. Consider the Cyclones' cornerbacks, for example: Iowa State has a promising young piece in sophomore Nigel Tribune, but he's not quite ready to shoulder the load as the defense's stopper; Tribune is more productive than junior cornerbacks Sam Richardson and Kenneth Lynn, but he needs another year of experience. Yet ISU's cornerback situation stands light years ahead of the concern that is strong and free safety. Rhoads and his staff inked two JUCO transfers, Qujuan Floyd and Devron Moore, for the express purpose of helping the defense replace Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield; Moore is questionable to make it on campus and Floyd won't arrive until the summer, leaving sophomore T.J. Mutcherson and redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya taking starter's snaps with the first-team defense. The staff loves Cotton-Moya, but can you imagine what the Big 12 will do to a sophomore and redshirt freshman at safety?
The defensive front will also sink or swim with a trio of JUCO transfers. If the threesome hit the ground running – one, Dalyou Pierson, arrives with three-star billing – the Cyclones might be able to survive without a pair of lost starters. If not, well, batten down the hatches. While waiting for the newcomers, ISU's front four has senior Cory Morrissey (52 tackles, 6.5 for loss) and sophomore Mitchell Meyers on the edges and senior Brandon Jensen and a quartet of freshmen and sophomores in the middle. Sadly, not a single lineman in the current two-deep will strike fear into Big 12 offensive linemen, to put it kindly. There is a good chance that this group gets chewed up in 60-minute increments during the span of 12 Saturdays between August and November.
Once he returns to full strength, sophomore Luke Knott (45 tackles) will regain his starting role on the weak side. He's the heady, reliable player this linebacker corps – and this entire defense – needs, particularly with Iowa State facing the daunting task of replacing Jeremiah George's all-conference production in the middle. In a surprise, redshirt freshman Alton Meeks topped the depth chart at middle linebacker after spring ball, ahead of sophomore Kane Seeley, last year's primary backup. Another surprise: Drake Ferch was the post-spring starter on the strong side. Yeah, that's not going to last. The Cyclones need the potential for explosiveness senior Jared Brackens (61 tackles) brings to the table, so it would be shocking if he's not back in the lineup by late August.
Special teams: Punter Kirby Van Der Kamp's departure deals this defense a huge blow: Van Der Kamp was a nice weapon in field position, and this year's defense could use all the extra space it can get. Based on the spring, it looks as if redshirt freshman Holden Kramer will get the nod as Van Der Kamp's successor. The Cyclones return sophomore kicker Cole Netten, who could double as the kickoff specialist, and will again call on West and Nealy in the return game.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Let's do our annual dance. Again, Iowa State will head into a fall camp with multiple quarterbacks angling for the starting job: Grant Rohach, Sam Richardson and Joel Lanning. Once again, we're left combing through spring numbers and first-team snaps to gauge the competition – Rohach played with the top group during the spring game, for example, and was the most productive passer in Mangino's spread-the-wealth system. Separation is still in the eye of the beholder: Rohach might be the leader today – due also to his strong close to last season – but ISU seems set on giving Richardson and Lanning another look in August, even if only to ensure that one, Richardson, doesn't opt to depart Ames in search of consistent playing time. Three options; no major separation. Another offseason at Iowa State.
Lost in the shadows of this competition is the fact that Rhoads and Mangino have no proven options: Rohach and Richardson have looked good in fits and starts, largely against Kansas, and would need another season of experience in this new offensive approach before finding a starter's rhythm. In terms of positives, one need only appreciate Mangino's pedigree as a play-caller and offensive technician to see a light at the end of the tunnel. To me, the Cyclones' answer will be the quarterback best able to work through his reads, a total prerequisite, and protect the football – pretty standard stuff, but doubly vital given the skill players surrounding the new starter. Rhoads has said he wants to name his starter by Aug. 29, one day before ISU opens the season against Football Championship Subdivision power North Dakota State. I think he's serious.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Kansas: The Cyclones' best shot at a Big 12 win again comes against Kansas, even if we've come to expect ISU to pull one upset during league play. In addition to the typical conference slate – four road games, five in Ames – the Cyclones pull NDSU, Iowa and Toledo in the first half. While it won't be easy, ISU does close November with road dates against Kansas and TCU sandwiching home games against Texas Tech and West Virginia.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: So it's going to be one of those years, and you know exactly what I mean. It'll be a year when Iowa State either nips and tucks and bobs and weaves its way into bowl contention – you know, like all those other times – or it'll be one of those years when the Cyclones take that first step, miss their mark and go tumbling downhill, as was the case a season ago. There are no shades of gray for Iowa State, just good or bad, so prepare for another white-knuckling ride through the Big 12.
Oh, before I forget: I think Iowa State's going to have a bad year. Why? Well, there's that schedule to deal with, one that includes the normal Big 12 slate in addition to dates with Toledo, rival Iowa and three-time defending FCS national champions. There's the change in offensive mentality, though hiring Mangino will ultimately pay off enormously for Rhoads and Iowa State. There's the unsettled quarterback competition, yet again; there's the in-flux offensive line, even if I foresee a nice step forward after a disaster of last season; and most of all, there's a defense that looks – on paper, mind you – like a total mess. Even if Mangino works wonders, as he might, the Cyclones simply don't have the defense to put up a fight in the Big 12.
Iowa State's most winnable game, Kansas, comes on the road. A home date with Toledo will be a dogfight; likewise with NDSU even if Craig Bohl has left for Wyoming. The Cyclones have no chance against Baylor and Oklahoma. The chances are slim, if improved, against Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Maybe there's an upset win looming, but it won't be the sort of didn't-see-it-coming win that vaults ISU into bowl play. Given the schedule and personnel – particularly this awful defense – I'd be surprised if ISU ends up anywhere but the bottom three in the Big 12. But it'll be interesting, at least.
Dream season: The Cyclones sweep through non-conference play, knock off Kansas, West Virginia and TCU, and notch an upset win against a leading Big 12 contender – let's say Baylor, in this case.
Nightmare season: Kansas tops ISU by 14 points, and you can pretty much extrapolate a dismal record from the result.
Who's No. 98? This team's current coach is one of four in school history to win six or more games in a season despite his team being outscored by the opposition.
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