The Iowa State Cyclones and Baylor Bears are set to kick off in an important early Big 12 game Saturday in Waco. Iowa State put its loss to rival Iowa in the rearview mirror with a 48-3 victory over UNLV last week and finished its non-conference slate 2-1. Baylor opened league play with a dominant 45-7 win over Kansas and improved to 3-0. Head coach Dave Aranda has already led the Bears to more wins in 2021 than he did in his first season in charge.
No. 14 Iowa State at Baylor
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa State -7
When Iowa State Has the Ball
Running back Breece Hall was the top returning vote-getter for the Heisman Trophy, but he has struggled to put up Heisman-type numbers through Iowa State's first three games. Hall was held to 69 rushing yards in each of his first two contests but finally hit 100 yards last week against UNLV. He now has 238 yards and four touchdowns on 60 carry, for an average of 3.97 yards per attempt. For context, Hall broke the century mark in each of his first eight games last year (nine overall) and was held to less than four yards per carry only once (by Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game). No other Cyclones running back has carried the ball more than six times, and only Deon Silas, a freshman with 32 yards on five attempts, has scored on the ground.
Quarterback Brock Purdy has also started slower than expected, and the four-year starter was even benched late in the loss to Iowa following his third interception of the day. Purdy bounced back with 288 yards and three touchdowns on 21-for-24 passing (87.5 percent) in last week's rout of the Rebels, averaging a robust 12.0 yards per pass attempt. He has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 625 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions overall, and Purdy ranks second on the team with 92 rushing yards and 21 carries.
Xavier Hutchinson has been Purdy's favorite receiver again this season, and he leads Iowa State with 20 receptions, 243 yards, and two touchdowns. However, a No. 2 wideout has yet to fully emerge. Though 14 players have caught a pass, Hutchinson is the only one with double-digit receptions. All-American candidate tight end Charlie Kolar missed the opener but has caught eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Hall has nine receptions for 55 yards.
When Baylor Has the Ball
Few teams have improved more than Baylor through the early weeks of the 2021 season. The Bears averaged 23.3 points and 310.2 total yards of offense last year, which ranked No. 100 and No. 118 in the country, respectively. It's early, and competition hasn't been very strong, but those numbers are up to 46.7 points (No. 5 on the FBS leaderboard) and 560.7 yards (No. 4) per contest. Baylor also ranks fourth with an average of 8.13 yards per play after managing just 4.44 last season — worse than all but two FBS teams.
The running game is a big part of the turnaround. Baylor ranks fifth nationally in rushing offense (323.3 ypg), an increase of 233 yards from last year's unit, which ranked 123rd overall. Last year, Baylor surpassed 200 rushing yards in two games, with a high of 204. This season, the Bears have gained 244, 419, and 307 yards on the ground in their first three contests, respectively. Abram Smith leads the team with 366 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 47 carries, and Trestan Ebner is close behind with 317 yards on 42 attempts. Ebner also has five receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown, and is a weapon as a kick and punt returner. Taye McWilliams has chipped in with 156 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, and quarterback Gerry Bohanon has 69 rushing yards and three scores on 14 attempts.
Bohanon has been an excellent passer as well. In three starts, he has completed 51 of 70 passes (72.9 percent) for 664 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. He has averaged 9.5 yards per pass. By comparison, last year's starter Charlie Brewer finished with a 61.7 percent completion rate, averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, and posted a 14:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. R.J. Sneed and Tyquan Thornton have given Bohanon a solid receiving duo. Sneed leads with 14 receptions and 260 yards, an explosive 18.6 yards per catch, with one touchdown. Thornton has two touchdowns among his 13 receptions for 180 yards. Tight end Ben Sims has seven catches for 55 yards and one score.
Iowa State may have started slowly on offense, but the Cyclones are still playing excellent defense. Elite, even. Opponents have averaged 194 total yards per game and 3.42 yards per snap against Iowa State, both of which lead the nation. But Baylor is close behind. The Bears sit fifth in both categories with an average of 227.3 yards per contest and 3.79 yards per snap.
Baylor looks much improved and should continue to play well. However, Iowa State is a legitimate Big 12 title contender, and the loss to Iowa is understandable with the Hawkeyes sitting at No. 5 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones even played better in that game than the 27-17 final score would indicate, having recorded a 91 percent postgame win expectancy according to collegefootballdata.com.
In other words, Iowa State still has a chance to be the top-10 team many expected in the preseason, and though Baylor is playing like a team capable of breaking into the national rankings, the Cyclones are by far the toughest opponent the Bears have faced to date. The home crowd should help Baylor to keep the score close, but Iowa State should leave with a win.
Prediction: Iowa State 28, Baylor 24
Podcast: Complete Week 4 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread