To fully understand how far Iowa State football has come under Matt Campbell, a brief history lesson is necessary.
The Big 12 Conference began play in 1996. Since then, only four Iowa State teams have finished league play with a winning record. During Campbell’s four-year tenure, the Cyclones have achieved this feat three seasons in a row. Iowa State has come so far under Campbell that in 2019, the Cyclones tied for third in the Big 12 — and the season was seen as a disappointment by many. Due to an elite quarterback and a deeper roster with more experience, optimism is high in Ames that the “next step” could be right around the corner.
Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2020
Previewing Iowa State’s Offense for 2020
Brock Purdy is one of the top quarterbacks in college football. That’s why, even with only five starters returning on that side of the football, Iowa State’s offense is expected to take another step forward in 2020. The junior signal caller has compiled an eye-popping 21 school records in just two seasons at the helm. Purdy, who led the Big 12 in passing at 306.3 yards per game, fought a handful of injuries as a sophomore, but Iowa State still had the best statistical season in program history.
Excitement is rightfully building in the running game due to the midseason emergence of Breece Hall. The shifty yet sturdy sophomore averaged 101.6 yards per game with nine TDs in his eight starts as a freshman.
The running back room is deep with veterans, while redshirt freshman Jirehl Brock has a bright future as well.
Iowa State might have the best group of tight ends in college football. The position caught 75 passes for 971 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. All three Cyclones tight ends — Charlie Kolar, Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner — are back.
Anchored by veterans Trevor Downing and Colin Newell in the middle, the O-line should be a deeper unit overall while having less experience. “Having those two foundational leaders back is exciting for us,” Campbell says. “Now we need to fill in the pieces around them.”
Up-and-comers Grant Treiber and Joey Ramos are both promising young tackles.
Campbell believes that the program has “hit” on its last three offensive line recruiting classes. If that is the case, it should start to pay off this season.
Previewing Iowa State’s Defense for 2020
Nine starters return for a defensive unit that took a small step back in 2019. “You saw us do some really good things and you saw us at times where attention to detail and some of the little things that we have done in the past to win football games, we didn’t do as well,” says Campbell.
Third down was an issue. The Cyclones ended the season ranked 89th in that category but were in the top 50 in virtually every other defensive statistic.
The building blocks for another stout Jon Heacock-led unit are in place, as Iowa State is loaded up front.
Senior defensive end JaQuan Bailey is back for a fifth season after taking a medical redshirt due to an injury early last year. He currently ranks third among all active college football players with 18.5 career sacks, which also ties Iowa State’s career sack record.
Veterans Eyioma Uwazurike, Zach Petersen and Will McDonald are all quality options on the end.
Inside, Iowa State has to replace Ray Lima and Jamahl Johnson, but developmental players Isaiah Lee and Joshua Bailey should be able to fill some gaps. Keep an eye on the name Latrell Bankston, a mid-year enrollee who was considered one of the top interior junior college defensive linemen in the country last season.
Linebacker is solid. Mike Rose, O’Rien Vance and Jake Hummel have all produced in the past and should only get better. “All three of those guys are high-end football players,” says Campbell.
Iowa State could play a bit of musical chairs in the secondary. The return of two-time All-Big 12 performer Greg Eisworth is a huge plus. He spent the majority of 2019 playing through an injury and is back to 100 percent. Young but experienced cornerbacks Anthony Johnson, Datrone Young and Tayvonn Kyle all have promising futures.
The names Isheem Young, Kym-Mani King and D.J. Miller are relatively new to Cyclone fans, but all are expected to make an impact in the secondary this season. Additionally, North Carolina graduate transfer Greg Ross is expected to join the team this fall.
Previewing Iowa State’s Specialists for 2020
Iowa State is in good shape with veterans returning all over on special teams. Senior Connor Assalley will be the placekicker for the third straight season. There will be a punting competition between Joe Rivera, who handled the duties last season, and Corey Dunn, who suffered a season-ending injury last summer. Kene Nwangwu has the ability to be an elite kick return man.
Consider this: Iowa State has been beaten by more than 14 points only once in its last 39 games — a 33–9 loss to Notre Dame in last season’s Camping World Bowl. Heading into his fifth season at the helm, Campbell has gotten Iowa State to a point where its talent level isn’t drastically behind the league’s top-tier teams. Now, the Cyclones have to find a way to clear that final hurdle and compete for the Big 12 title.
National Ranking: 17
(Top photo courtesy of Iowa State Athletics)