There is a buzz around the Iowa State Cyclones this year unlike anything we've seen before in Ames. And the 2021 college football season is still more than seven months away.
After finishing the season ranked No. 8 in the final AP Top 25 — the highest spot in program history — all indications point to Iowa State setting a new high mark in the next poll. In addition to being a top-10 preseason lock, the Cyclones should be a favorite to return to the Big 12 Championship Game, and at least on paper, are a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.
Why all the hubbub in Ames? Here we explore three reasons for optimism about Iowa State football in 2021.
1. Matt Campbell
What Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has done in Ames is historic — and he just turned 41 and has led the Cyclones for only five seasons. Campbell needs eight wins in 2021 to move into second place on the school's all-time leaderboard, and 21 victories over the next few years would tie Dan McCarney for the school record. McCarney coached 141 games for the Cyclones compared to Campbell's 63, and the Cyclones' .556 winning percentage under Campbell is the best ever for an Iowa State head coach.
With a 70-43 career record including five seasons at Toledo, and already a four-time conference Coach of the Year honoree (including 2020), Campbell is a hot name in the profession. The work he has done (along with a consistent and creative staff of assistants) to make Iowa State a Big 12 contender and top-10 team makes Campbell a desired candidate any time a job opens at a college football blue blood (and even those that haven't yet, like Michigan). NFL franchises have been sniffing around the Ohio native as well, and at his introductory press conference recently hired Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell (no relation) joked (probably) that he told his agent to tell teams he was the Iowa State head coach in order to receive an interview.
Despite all that interest, Campbell is back. It seems to be a conscious choice, and that he's content building Iowa State.
2. Minimal roster turnover
Five Cyclones have announced their intentions to forego the extra year of eligibility, including four with a chance of being selected in the 2021 NFL Draft: defensive end JaQuan Bailey, safety Lawrence White, tight end Dylan Soehner, and reserve running back and former all-conference return man Kene Nwangwu. Iowa State also lost five players to the transfer portal after the season and receiver Landon Akers announced his plans to move on to professional life. We don't yet know if punters Joe Rivera or Corey Dunn will return. But everyone else — literally everyone remaining on the roster — should be back.
Including quarterback Brock Purdy, whose 34 career starts are the most among Big 12 signal-callers and among the top five nationally. Only Pitt's Kenny Pickett (36) and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder (35) will have made more starts for their team. Transfers Shai Werts, Charlie Brewer and Jake Bentley also have more career starts than Purdy, but will be suiting up for new teams — and in Werts' case a new position — in 2021. But more important than experience, Purdy has been productive, completing 66.6 percent of his passes for 2,750 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Purdy averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and tossed nine interceptions, numbers that did not move in the expected direction in 2020, but there were plenty of great performances including three games in which he threw for three scores and three in which he averaged 10.5 yards per attempt or better.
Purdy is tied for the Iowa State career record with an average of 8.5 yards per pass attempt, and his 8,982 passing yards are a close second on the all-time leaderboard. His 62 career touchdown passes are already a dozen more than the next best Cyclone, and he ranks 10th in school history and third among quarterbacks with 18 rushing scores. Purdy has easily emerged as the best quarterback in program history and along with Campbell has led Iowa State to new heights with the potential for more.
Then there's Breece Hall, who led the nation with 1,572 rushing yards last season and ranked second with 21 touchdowns. Hall finished sixth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, which makes him the highest returning vote-getter, as well as the only FBS player to finish in the top 10, in 2020. Like Purdy and Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar, receiver Xavier Hutchinson, offensive lineman Colin Newell, pass rusher Will McDonald, linebacker Mike Rose and safety Greg Eisworth were first-team All-Big 12 selections and are returning. Hall and Rose were named as the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in the conference, respectively, and Hutchinson was voted as Newcomer of the Year in his first season after transferring from junior college. McDonald led the league and tied atop the FBS leaderboard with 10.5 sacks. Tight end Chase Allen and offensive lineman Derek Schweiger were picked for the second team and eight other returnees received Honorable Mention.
By the numbers, Iowa State is expected to return:
- 99.0 percent of its passing yardage
- 85.4 percent of its rushing production
- 82.0 percent of its receiving yards
- 100 percent of its offensive line snaps and starts
- 80.4 percent of its total tackles
- 70.1 percent of its tackles for loss
- 62.1 percent of its sacks
- 88.9 percent of its interceptions
- 88.9 percent of its pass breakups
There is still time for players to transfer. Also, though many key seniors have announced their intention to come back for an extra year of eligibility, March 1 is the deadline for them to declare for the draft. The numbers above are likely to change slightly, and it's too early to know how they will stack up across all 130 FBS programs in 2021. Nevertheless, compared to last year's returning production numbers, Iowa State would have ranked among the top 40 in all but one category (sacks, in which the Cyclones would have ranked 75th). Plus, all five starters will be back on the offensive line. Simply put, Iowa State has no weak spot on its roster.
3. Room for error?
The 2020 season ended with Iowa State's best-ever ranking and respect on the national landscape, but it began with a shocking loss. The Cyclones were outcoached and outplayed by Louisiana in a 31-14 loss Sept. 12. Though the Ragin' Cajuns would go on to its own historic 10-1 season, Iowa State was bruised from a resume standpoint. When Iowa State beat TCU 37-34 in 2020, it was the first time a Campbell-coached team won its Big 12 opener, and the first time the Cyclones opened 1-0 in conference play since 2002.
Last year's slow start wasn't an isolated event. In 2019, the Cyclones needed triple overtime to beat FCS opponent Northern Iowa and lost two of their next three games by a total of three points. One of those losses was to archrival Iowa, a team Campbell has never beaten. Reversing that history and getting off to a strong start in 2021 is important, but a lofty preseason ranking would give Iowa State more room for error than it's used to — which could come in handy with Iowa back on the schedule and Oklahoma expected to be a preseason top-5 team.
Very few college football programs should enter 2021 with a "playoff or bust" mentality. Iowa State certainly isn't one of them. But let's think big for a minute: It's going to be difficult for any two-loss team to make it to the College Football Playoff, so Iowa State must beat either the Hawkeyes (a likely top-20 team) or the Sooners during the regular season. If the Cyclones split their two biggest games, Iowa State would then need to beat everyone else on the schedule, including Texas, TCU, Kansas State, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State (which beat the Cyclones 24-21 last year). Beat both Iowa and Oklahoma? More room for error.
One regular-season loss — especially for a team that opened ranked in the top 10, and especially if it was a quality loss to Iowa, Oklahoma or another ranked team — would be excusable. Only 12 of the 28 playoff participants since 2014 were undefeated. Adding a conference title (something no Cyclones team has done since 1912) would be enough most years. It's all within reach for Iowa State in 2021.