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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Iowa State

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Iowa State...
2006 Record
4-8 (1-7 Big 12/ Sixth-North)
Past Five Years
27-35 (13-27 Big 12)
Returning Starters, Roughly
10 (3 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
The offense could have used Todd Blythe late last year, when he missed three of the final four games, defeats in which ISU scored 10, 10 and 16 points in not-very-competitive fashion. He returned in the finale, caught four passes and a touchdown against Missouri, and ISU won its only league game, running its record to 4-5 when Blythe was on the field. Not great, but an improvement on the whole. His yards per catch have dropped every year, from more than 21 as a freshman to a little over 14 last season, yet the graduation of teammate Austin Flynn makes Blythe not only the undisputed top proprietor on his own team of "deceptive speed," but with Jeff Samardzijfiajfsha in the minor leagues, likely the most deceptively fast receiver in the nation.
Bizarre Tradition(s)
SMQ mentioned the "Telephone Trophy" with Missouri earlier in the week, but on the university level, ISU students organize a Spring festival sort of thing known as VEISHA, founded in 1922 (15 years before SMQ’s grandfather was even enrolled in Ames) to celebrate the school’s cornerstones: Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics and Agriculture. This year’s celebration begins on April 21 and marks Iowa State’s year-long, 150th "Birthday Bash." No drinking these days, per campus policy, of coursee, but traditionally, there is what seems like a pretty large parade and apparently a comedian, much swan-related pageantry (above) dating to the 1935 exploits of Lancelot and Elaine. Read this if you are interested in the Battle of the Bands.

In 2004, ISU students inaugurated a new VEISHA tradition of tear gas-drenched rioting:

What's Changed: An awful, awful lot in this category. ISU didn't come closer than two touchdowns to winning any of its first seven conference games last year, and was a combined eight points against Toledo, UNLV and Northern Iowa and a bogus holding call against Missouri from going 0-12. So maybe the implosion of his veteran team was a sure sign Dan McCarney's time had come. But McCarney's teams had won nine games in 2000 and seven in four of five seasons before last year's debacle, and they should have won ISU's first Big 12 North title in both 2004 and 2005, if not for a pair of season-ending overtime losses. That `05 team, particularly, was the polar opposite of last year's losers, much more so than the three-game difference in the standings would indicate:
2005 2006
Record (Big 12) 7-5 (4-4) 4-8 (1-7)
Avg. Margin of Victory 14.3 3.5
Avg. Margin of Defeat 5.2 19.6
Wins by 10+ 6 0
Losses by 10+ 1 8
In Overtime 0-3 1-0

In the span of a year, essentially the same players veered from big wins and the narrowest of losses to skin-of-the-teeth victories and embarrassing margins of defeat. You will see this theme of inexplicable regression again. The coach is going to have to take the crap for that.

The instant buzz on Gene Chizik, though, is that he don't take no crap. SMQ Iowa State correspondent Alex of CrossCyed reports Chizik's New Sheriff In Town approach:

...Gene wants a bowl game. At his last open  
practice, he said that he's "tasted a championship, and i want  
another. just give me that chance." He also said "We don't need any of you here. We want you here, but we don't need you. And if you're not here to win a Big 12 Championship, you can leave."

Success is not exactly new for Chizik - though he actually only won one Big 12 title as defensive coordinator at Texas, to accompany his mythical championship ring and autographed photo with Vince Young - but those kinds of expectations for Iowa State are. CrossCyed has this McCarney quote on its sidebar:

Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not? When I took this job I said why not Iowa State? Why not winning? Why not bowl games? Why not sellouts? Why not national respect? Why not us? Why not here? Why not the Cyclone family?

He did a couple of those things, for a time - bowl games, national respect from those paying attention - but ISU's last conference championship in football remains a tie for the 1912 Missouri Valley crown.

What's the Same: Fullback Ryan Kock, sadly, has moved along, but Bret Meyer returns at quarterback with three years of full-time starting experience and the patented Aaron Brooks, "Anything might happen here, and no one knows what that thing will be, least of all me" aura of maddening unpredictability about him. This is not only because Meyer is built so much like Brooks, which he is, but because SMQ watched and sincerely attempted to support Brooks' tenure with the Saints for five mostly excruciating years, and sees so many of the same patterns in Meyer's career. Meyer, like Brooks, is athletic, a good runner, but does not play in a system that encourages much running and prefers to stay in the pocket, where he is occasionally brilliant and occasionally throws the ball in the wrong direction. Both will go on affirming streaks of competence - Brooks had the first seven games of 2002; in Meyer's case, as a sophomore, he had a four-game run in which ISU trounced Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Kansas State and Colorado as he threw for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns and was not intercepted - followed by dismal efforts of woe. A lot of youthful promise has yet to flower into greatness...but can the team do better? Realistically, no, unless it strikes darkhorse recruiting gold - he's not a bad quarterback. Just inconsistent is all.

Bret Meyer prepares to mix `n match a wide range of emotional extremes.
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Meyer's interceptions were only slightly up last year (12, from 10 in '05), and his yards not egregiously down, but his touchdowns plummeted from 19 to 12, four of the latter number coming against Toledo and Northern Iowa, and the offense he helmed as a whole scored ten fewer points per game (more on this later). ISU didn't score more than 26 in regulation against any I-A defense; in the conference, only quarterback-less Colorado scored less overall. This is pretty much identical to Brooks' struggles in his final year with the Saints. Meyer's response as a senior in the Cyclones' new Purdue-inspired spread, for ISU's sake, ought to be better than his pro doppelganger's effort at rejuvenation in Oakland, but it's hardly guaranteed.

Opponents Just Love that Delicious Center: Iowa State had this big, all-conference tackle in the middle of its defense last season, Brent Curvey, who played every game and had very good numbers for a regularly double teamed havoc-maker (12.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks). Another veteran defensive lineman, Shawn Moorehead (12 TFL, eight sacks), joined Curvey as honorable mention all-conference. So how was ISU's run defense so much worse? Yards per game and per carry each shot up by a ridiculous 50 percent (about 50 yards per game, 1.5 per carry) over good 2005 marks. A lot of the blame has to go to the inexperienced linebackers, one would think, but first-time starter Alvin Bowen led the nation in solo and total tackles, and another newbie in the middle, Tyrone McKenzie, finished eighth in place of departed Tim Dobbins. The only explanation for allowing five yards per carry in Big 12 games is that a lot of those plays were being made too far down the field - and on third and short, what is going on here?

Hooray for charts! Hooray for MGoBlog!

The thin black line is opponents' conversion rate, which is a good 10 percent above the national average (the thick black line) from five yards and less to go, and 20 percent above the average on third-and-one. Teams running against ISU on third and 1-3 yards to go averaged a little over six yards per carry on 25 attempts. That is a disgrace - in 2005, that number for ISU was 1.03 yards allowed on third and 1-3 runs. So much for Curvey's impact there, or that of his tackle-happy cohorts. What is a possible explanation for this sudden, rank softness? Was Dobbins that big a deal? Jason Berryman?

There's no indication other than the general grizzled resolve of Chizik's influence that the lighter guys coming in behind him - last year's top defensive tackle reserves, redshirt freshmen Matt Dale and Stephon Berg, give up 50 pounds apiece to big Brent, and to almost any hulking Big 12 lineman they'll face - are going to be much better, but lord, how could they not be?

Start Again, From Scratch: SMQ does not think the Cyclones are missing a whole lot with the graduation of Stevie Hicks, who had some attention after his sophomore season but struck him as a fairly run of the mill, cloud-of-dust pounder, but that shouldn't be misconstrued as a suggestion there is a better option at running back. There may be, in the form of incoming California JUCO star Jamicah Bass, but returnees Jason Scales and Josh Johnson have not contributed much. The team's rushing average - an ugly 2.6 per carry in conference games, which was not as much a regression as the other unpleasant stats - like that of the defense, starts with the offensive line, an absolutely massive, all-senior group with dozens upon dozens of mostly victorious career starts that, again like the defense, did not correlate at all to success last year. A substantial factor in Meyer's apparent regression was that he was sacked more than any quarterback in the conference. This is another situation where an entirely new set of starters, working in an offense designed to implement a lot of quick releases and less straight-up power blocking on runs, is more likely to be a positive for a group lacking great talent.

Overly Optimistic Offseason Chatter: There is the addition of Bass and another JUCO skill guy, one-time Nebraska commit Wallace Franklin, and you can't beat the installation of the spread to a very staid unit for optimism - wherever they go, multiple receiver sets are always greeted with some stodgy trepidation that must give way to the possibilities of becoming the next Texas Tech offensively. But more than anything, it's the New Coach Factor with Chizik. Alex again from CrossCyed: are more excited than they would have been  
with McCarney here. ISU will set a new season ticket record this  
year, despite going 4-8 last year (they did, on Tuesday - ed.). Chizik is seen as a tough SOB who won't take no crap. The biggest thing is, once you meet him or see him in action, I challenge anyone to tell us we hired the wrong guy.

For his part, Chizik is working very practically this Spring on defensive depth. He addresses the defensive line, specifying the need for guys who can hold the point of attack and not have to play 70 snaps per game, here.

Iowa State on YouTube: You know, this is a great run by Seneca Wallace circa 2002, but he probably should have thrown it into the stands. Doesn't he realize that sometimes just getting rid of the ball under pressure is the best play a quarterback will make all night?

See also: Definitely watch this essential 1951 study of four years in the lives of Iowa State College home economics students; Dan McCarney rides out a winner.

Best-Case: Even a slew of new starters doesn't prevent SMQ from predicting ISU's scoring will be back up in the mid-twenties. Opening up with a pair of MAC also-rans and a I-AA school, the only thing that should be in the way of a 4-0 start is Iowa, but the Big 12 schedule throws down an immediate gauntlet after that: at Nebraska, at Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma. Best case, SMQ has to think the Cyclones win one of those, no more. If there's going to be a significant turnaround, it will be against the weaker North Division stretch to end the schedule; taking three out of four against Missouri, Kansas State, Kansas and Colorado would be a tremendous immediate improvement - McCarney was never better than 2-2 against that cycle. It would only match the annual standard this decade, but given the circumstances ISU fans ought to be pretty happy with 7-5.

Worst-Case: Depending on the way the season breaks, the Cyclones could reasonably be underdogs in every league game, and therefore could drop every league game. They had to beat Missouri on the last play, after all, to avoid being 0-8 in the Big 12 last year, when the worst case basically was reality. Without that upset, a more experienced team would have been 3-9.

Non-Binding Forecast: The average Iowa State team this decade is roughly 7-5, a record ISU actually hit four times from 2001-05; ISU was also 7-7 in 2000. That's the immediate standard for Chizik, who has a lot of players who have played major roles on a team, or two teams, that have reached that standard before. That indicates the talent here is too good to accept 4-8, and the influx of a new attitude and new scheme - SMQ won't vouch for Chizik's "Tampa 2" on defense, but he supports the spread offense at all non-powerhouse schools - ought to bring it much closer to snuff. Actually, just the expectation of reversion to the mean, off a truly dreadful anomaly of a year, statistically, is reason to expect an improvement to about 6-6. That doesn't guarantee a bowl, but the first order ought to be simply making the tough games close again.