Iowa State has not traditionally been a college football program that reciprocates heightened expectations with on-field success. So it was tragically on brand when the Cyclones entered the season ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll for the third time in school history and then lost by 17 points at Jack Trice Stadium to an opponent that hadn’t touched the AP poll at any point in a season in more than 75 years.1
The Des Moines Register summed up the Cyclones’ season-opening dejection in its postgame report: “In a season where few things will look or feel normal, Iowa State delivered something familiar to its fans. Disappointment in September.”
But there has hardly been any disappointment since. Iowa State has gone 8-1 after the opener and will appear in this week’s Big 12 championship game. If that sounds suspect, it’s because it has never happened before.
Football has been played in Ames, Iowa, for more than 100 years. Little of that history has involved winning. Over a 36-season run as a member of the Big Eight Conference, the Cyclones went 157-220-12. When the Big Eight transitioned into the Big 12, the sorrow continued as Iowa State went 90-151 over its first 20 seasons.
But head coach Matt Campbell, who has actually used the word “laughingstock” to describe his program’s past, has rapidly established a new standard for the cardinal and gold. In fewer than five seasons, Campbell has won the same number of conference games (26) that former coach Dan McCarney did over his final 10 seasons, and he has won more total games (34) than did his predecessor, Paul Rhoads, (32) over his seven-year stint. Campbell has beaten Big 12 aristocrats Oklahoma and Texas twice each — and this year, he beat them both. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, he will soon bring Iowa State to its 16th all-time bowl game and fourth consecutive under his watch. The fifth-year seniors on his roster will graduate as the winningest class in school history.
“There’s been a lot of adversity at Iowa State for a long time. And there’s been a cloud around us,” Campbell said after his team downed the Sooners in 2017. “I think our kids said, ‘I’m sick of it.’”
Three years later, Iowa State capped the regular season in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 standings for the first time in program history. With a rematch against Oklahoma looming, let’s first take stock of the historic season unfolding in Ames. One way to measure it is by Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, which calculates how many points better or worse a team is than an average one in a given season. By SRS, the 2020 Cyclones are in the midst of the school’s best season since 1976 and the third best of the 123 seasons in the database.
So how did the Cyclones bounce back from a season-opening loss to emerge atop the Big 12 with a sliver of a chance to reach the College Football Playoff?
“Being balanced is really who we’ve been when we’ve been at our best,” Campbell said earlier this season. “So finding that balance within a game … I really do think it is critical for us becoming the best version of ourselves we can be.”
And while that is quintessential coach speak, Campbell and offensive coordinator Tom Manning have actually balanced the offensive ledger more than in previous seasons.
Iowa State’s pass rate is 51.1 percent, the lowest rate for the team under Campbell. Though quarterback Brock Purdy has seen fewer dropbacks this year (33.1 per game after averaging 40.5 in 2019), the Cyclones have a higher team Total QBR (78.9) and adjusted completion percentage (72.9 percent) this season than any for which data is available.2
Balance extends not only to play type but also to who receives targets in the pass game. In Charlie Kolar, a surefire NFL draft pick, Iowa State has the school’s all-time single-season record holder for receiving yards by a tight end. But the team also has nine other players with at least five receptions this season. This represents quite the departure for a team that grew accustomed to keying in on a single, standout wide receiver when players like Hakeem Butler or Allen Lazard competed.
And then there’s Doak Walker candidate Breece Hall. The sophomore leads the country in rushing yards (1,357), and ranks second in rushing yards after contact (721) and total scrimmage yards (1,501) and is tied for second in evaded tackles (33).
Behind Hall and a we-will-get-there-when-we-get-there offensive ethos, Iowa State has adopted an intentionally slow operation, which averages the longest time of possession per play and per drive that Campbell has had in Ames. In one-score games, the Cyclones huddle before 47.1 percent of their offensive snaps, up 12 percentage points from the team’s average over Campbell’s first four seasons.
Within Campbell’s scheme on defense, Iowa State is compressing the pocket and bothering opposing quarterbacks, setting all-time team high-water marks in sack and pressure rate. What’s more impressive about those marks is that the Cyclones haven’t had to sacrifice coverage in pursuit of them: Campbell sends a five-man pass rush on just 10.9 percent of opponent dropbacks, a nearly 15-point drop from last season and by far the lowest rate of his tenure.
In turn, the Cyclone defense is holding opponents to 1.47 points per drive, the second best mark by an ISU defense for any season for which data is available.
All this adds up to Campbell’s most efficient team on both sides of the ball.
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There aren’t many college football teams for which curses are used for explanation with such regularity. But in 2020, a year that cursed so many, the Cyclones somehow managed to exorcise its past. They rebounded from being roundly mocked following the season opener to turn away Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor and Texas in the waning moments of one-score games. Historically, that simply doesn’t happen for this team.
A win Saturday would give Iowa State its first conference championship since 1912 and put a giant bow on Ames’s feel-good storyline. The odds are against Campbell and his crew: Oklahoma is the stronger team according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, and the Sooners stand as 5.5-point favorites. But then again, the Cyclones have been comfortable performing the improbable all season long.