Make no mistake about it. After winning last year's Fiesta Bowl and returning 19 of 22 starters, the 2021 edition of Iowa State football should be the best in school history by a wide margin. In Year Six of the Matt Campbell era, the Cyclones are a legitimate College Football Playoff contender with all eyes set on winning the Big 12. Campbell, a three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, has led Iowa State to nine wins over ranked teams since 2017, tied for the third most in college football during that span.
The only goals for this season involve shattering anything that Iowa State football has done in its 100-plus-year history.
Previewing Iowa State's Offense for 2021
Iowa State has two Heisman Trophy contenders on its offense in quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall.
Whatever happens this season, Purdy, who chose to return for his senior year despite heavy NFL interest, will go down as the best signal-caller in program history. He's a three-time All-Big 12 quarterback who owns or shares 25 school records heading into 2021.
"Every time you walk on the field with that guy as your quarterback, you feel like you have an opportunity to win and be successful," Campbell says.
Purdy is joined in the backfield by an elite running back in Hall, who in 2020 was the school's first-ever unanimous first-team All-American. The runner-up for the Doak Walker Award led the nation in 100-yard rushing games (nine), averaging 146 yards from scrimmage per contest. Hall has an elite backup in Jirehl Brock, who is ready to increase his workload when called upon.
The secret sauce to Iowa State's offense is the tight end position, where two of the best in the Big 12 are back for their senior seasons. Charlie Kolar, a Mackey Award finalist in 2020, has 17 career touchdown receptions, which ranks fourth in Iowa State history. Chase Allen, who has 23 career starts, is a three-time second-team All-Big 12 performer as well, making Iowa State's tight end room arguably the best in the country.
Iowa State returns a handful of proven veterans at wide receiver. Because of Hall's and Kolar's consistent production, expect seniors Xavier Hutchison and Tarique Milton to get plenty of open looks. Hutchinson was the Big 12's Offensive Newcomer of the Year last season. Milton had an injury-plagued 2020 campaign but has produced heavily for this program in the past.
Iowa State's offensive line took a major step forward in 2020, and that was without arguably its best player, Trevor Downing, who suffered an injury in a season-opening loss to Louisiana. With Colin Newell, Derek Schweiger, Darrell Simmons Jr., Sean Foster and others, the Cyclones return seven offensive linemen with a combined 93 starts.
"They are a really proud group," says Campbell. "They know they can only continue to grow and get better."
With all of the firepower, Iowa State scored 30 points or more in seven of nine regular-season Big 12 games in 2020. That number should only improve in 2021.
Previewing Iowa State's Defense for 2021
Since 2017, under the leadership of defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, Iowa State has greatly contributed to putting the "no defense in the Big 12" talking point to rest — especially in the second half of games. Down the stretch in 2020, the Cyclones gave up only 16 second-half points combined in their final five games.
It all starts with the three-man front. Despite the departure of JaQuan Bailey, the school's all-time sack leader, expect the Cyclones to be stout on the line once again. Eyioma Uwazurike is back as a "super senior." Perhaps the most exciting player on the defense is junior Will McDonald IV, who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last year while tying for the nation's lead in sacks with 10.5.
Mike Rose might be the best linebacker in college football. He led the Big 12 in total tackles last season and led all linebackers in college football with five interceptions. O'Rien Vance and Jake Hummel complete an impressive set of linebacker starters.
Anthony Johnson Jr. and Tayvonn Kyle have the corners locked down and possess a wealth of experience. "At cornerback, we might have the most depth we have ever had," says Campbell. "We feel like that is a position where there is just so many really good players, and we need to put those guys in the best position to be successful."
Strong safety Greg Eisworth II is a three-time first-team All-Big 12 performer.
Really, the only question on defense is at free safety, where a handful of developmental defensive backs from last year will battle it out to start.
Previewing Iowa State's Specialists for 2021
Iowa State will benefit from last year's COVID season by getting senior kicker Connor Assalley back for another year. Senior Andrew Mevis, a transfer from Fordham, will challenge him. Senior Corey Dunn will handle the punting, although Mevis could push him as well. Finding a weapon to replace Kene Nwangwu as kick returner will be important.
It is nearly impossible to find a hole in this roster. The Cyclones are blessed with talent and experience. Led by one of the top coaches of the country, Iowa State expects nothing less than a Big 12 championship, which very well could lead to the College Football Playoff, with a Heisman Trophy finalist on the side.
National Ranking: 7
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