The 2021 Iowa State football season is the most highly anticipated in program history. The Cyclones won six straight games to close the 2020 regular season and earned a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Iowa State fell to Oklahoma in Arlington but rebounded to beat Oregon 34-17 in the Fiesta Bowl and wound up ninth in the final AP Top 25 — the highest finish in school history. Iowa State spent time ranked No. 8 in the AP poll, a new high, and even reached No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Among the many individual honors awarded to the Cyclones, head coach Matt Campbell was named Big 12 Coach of the Year, running back Breece Hall was the conference Offensive Player of the Year and the first unanimous All-American in program history, and Mike Rose won Defensive Player of the Year recognition in the league. All three are back for 2021, along with 34-game starting quarterback Brock Purdy and a total of 85.4 percent of the team’s rushing yards, 82.0 percent of its receiving production, 82.8 percent of its total tackles, and 100 percent of all snaps played by offensive linemen. Thanks to the extra season of eligibility awarded to all players from 2020, Iowa State retained five "super seniors" expected to start alongside 11 others considered seniors by traditional standards.
In short, Iowa State is one of the best and most experienced teams in college football, and goals are sky high by program standards. Nevertheless, the Cyclones must navigate a difficult schedule. We take a week-by-week look at Iowa State’s 2021 slate to see how the Cyclones stack up.
Iowa State Cyclones 2021 Schedule
Bye: Week 6
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. Northern Iowa (Ames, Iowa)
Despite the lofty expectations for the Cyclones, Northern Iowa is a tough out. Iowa State needed three overtimes to survive the last date with the FCS Panthers in 2019, and the Cyclones lost as recently as 2015. UNI finished its spring 2021 season 3-4 overall with all four losses coming against FCS playoff teams by a combined 15 points.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Iowa (Ames, Iowa)
This could be the biggest game in the history of the Iowa State-Iowa football rivalry. Both teams may be ranked in the Top 25 for the first time ever, and the Hawkeyes should be one of the top contenders in the Big Ten West. The Cyclones haven't won the Cy-Hawk Trophy since 2014, having lost five in a row before the game was canceled in 2020. All-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson has an excellent offensive line to work with, led by All-America-caliber center Tyler Linderbaum.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 at UNLV (Las Vegas)
UNLV has yet to win a game under head coach Marcus Arroyo, going 0-6 in his first season, but the Rebels are optimistic for the future. Arroyo has injected new life into the program on the recruiting trail, and Allegiant Stadium, the new venue UNLV shares with the Las Vegas Raiders, is an asset. Iowa State will see the facility up close in its first road trip of the season.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 at Baylor (Waco, Texas)
Things didn't go well in Dave Aranda's first season as a head coach, but his Baylor squad should be improved next season. The Bears already play solid defense, and despite longtime quarterback Charlie Brewer transferring to Utah, it's difficult to imagine the offense averaging worse than the 23.3 points and 310.2 yards per game the unit did in 2020. Still, Baylor isn't expected to compete for the Big 12 title, so it's a well-placed, season-opening opponent for the contending Cyclones — even on the road.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 vs. Kansas (Ames, Iowa)
Early road games against Baylor and Kansas State in conference play should be challenging but winnable. The Big 12 home opener against Kansas shouldn't be all that challenging. The Jayhawks have lost 13 games in a row, including 12 against Big 12 opponents, and with head coach Les Miles fired for off-field reasons in March, there's a lot the program must work through before it becomes competitive on the field again.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 at Kansas State (Manhattan, Kan.)
Kansas State was hit hard by NFL draft declarations defensively, which is a concern in a year in which most teams return a higher-than-average amount of experience and production. However, the Wildcats were able to bring back quarterback Skylar Thompson after an injury-shortened senior season in 2021, so there's understandable optimism in Manhattan. K-State also welcomes back electric running back Deuce Vaughn after a freshman season in which he led the team with 642 rushing yards, 434 receiving yards and scored nine total touchdowns.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 vs. Oklahoma State (Ames, Iowa)
The Big 12 is deep, and through Oklahoma State lost a lot of star-power from its 2020 roster (especially on offense), the Cowboys are still capable of ruining any opponents' day. Quarterback Spencer Sanders is one of the most experienced signal-callers in the league, and he'll have weapons to work with in running backs LD Brown and Dezmon Jackson as well as receivers Braydon Johnson, Brennan Presley and Tay Martin, who appear poised for bigger roles. Defensively, the Pokes are stacked, particularly in the back seven.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 at West Virginia (Morgantown, W. Va.)
One of the most difficult aspects of Iowa State's 2021 schedule is the five conference road games. Another is the fact one of those five is a trip to Morgantown — a difficult place to play any year, but with the Mountaineers fielding one of the best defenses in the country in 2020 and showing improvement on offense as well, next season could be even tougher. Though WVU lost some key transfers and NFL draft declarations, the Mountaineers return five players who received first- or second-team all-conference recognition last season.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Texas (Ames, Iowa)
Despite turnover on the coaching staff and at quarterback, there is a lot to like about Texas in 2021. The Longhorns are just as talented as ever and there's hope new head coach Steve Sarkisian — the architect of two of the greatest offenses in college football history during the last two years at Alabama — will coax more wins out of it than the previous regime. If everything clicks, Texas could compete for the Big 12 title in Sark's first season, but there's always a possibility a first-year head coach needs time. By November, we'll know for sure whether Iowa State must deal with a contender or rebuilder.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Texas Tech (Lubbock, Texas)
Texas Tech made one of the most important additions of the offseason by landing former Oregon starting quarterback Tyler Shough as a transfer. Shough is talented and experienced and should provide a boost to a Red Raiders offense that fell to 29.1 points and 429.5 yards per game in 2020. Tech still ranked 99th in total defense (444.8), but showed some improvement to indicate the Red Raiders could contend for a bowl game next season, which would be the first for the team since 2017. A postseason appearance would likely take some of the heat off of head coach Matt Wells, who has an 8-14 record since taking over in 2019. It's even possible bowl eligibility would be on the line with Iowa State coming to town on Nov. 13.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 at Oklahoma (Norman, Okla.)
The Big 12 title hunt is far from a two-team race, but at this point in the offseason it is fair to say the meeting between Iowa State and Oklahoma could be a preview of the conference championship game. The Sooners already had some of the most talented offensive players in the country in quarterback Spencer Sanders, running back Kennedy Brooks (who returns after opting out in 2020) and receiver Marvin Mims, and added more through the transfer portal. The defense has made significant strides in recent years and welcomes back 78.6 percent of its total tackles and 73.4 percent of its havoc plays (sacks, tackles for a loss, interceptions, pass breakups and forced fumbles). There are legitimate national title hopes in Norman, and with the game there, Iowa State is likely to be an underdog (perhaps for the first time in 2021). A loss for either squad would be a setback but might not be a death sentence for conference championship or playoff plans.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. TCU (Ames, Iowa)
Most don't see TCU as a top-tier Big 12 title contender, but the Horned Frogs are always dangerous and often capable of making a run. Head coach Gary Patterson is one of the great defensive minds in the sport, and though the Frogs lost some key pieces on defense, the unit is in good hands. Max Duggan has two years of experience as a starter and has shown great potential over that span, and he has a deep and talented group of running backs and receivers to work with. TCU might not have the depth to win the conference, but the Horned Frogs will certainly play a role in the title race, making the regular-season finale a particularly tough spot to face them.