What everyone thinks this summer, non-obvious division.
In some cases, the new-look Cyclones are expected to be worse than Baylor at the bottom of the entire conference.
The Sporting News:
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Much is doom made of three dismal indicators: incompetence (ISU enters as the de facto division bitch off last year's egg-laying), immaturity (ISU loses half its first line, as Steele points out, including a three-year starter at running back and four offensive linemen) and inexperience (not only is first-time boss Gene Chizik the bizarro Saban in that he is not expected to perform miracles, he's rated by the secret rubric of TSN as a "C+" hire and the worst head coach at any BCS school, coming in below, for example, Ron Zook, Ted Roof and Jim Harbaugh). None of which, even collectively, should rain too hard on the parade of resilient Sunny Cyclones, who haven't enjoyed a conference championship since before the outbreak of the Great War (ISU ties for the 1912 Missouri Valley crown) but are not ready to be back in this position every year.
Incompetence often resides inseparably with immaturity, but as I've noted before, the 14 returning starters that made up the heart of last year's Cyclones were unfathomably less competent than they had been as underclassmen:
|Record (Big 12)
|Avg. Margin of Victory
|Avg. Margin of Defeat
|Wins by 10+
|Losses by 10+
|Per Carry Allowed
The team on the left lost by ten points to Baylor, but otherwise was realistically a half dozen plays against three future bowl teams from finishing 7-1 in-conference and winning the North division - which it would have achieved anyway had it not blown an 11-point lead at Kansas and missed a field goal in overtime. ISU in 2005, in other words, was a good team, on the cusp, one that outscored four straight Big 12 opponents entering the fateful finale by an average of 24 points, albeit also a team with dreadful luck in the clutch.The quarterback then was sophomore Bret Meyer, who rocked the second half the season with 1,500-plus yards and a 14:3 TD-INT ratio over the last six games. He had back his entire offensive line, leading rusher and three leading receivers.
With Bret Meyer, nothing is obvious. Especially to Bret Meyer.
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The regression of the team on the left into the team on the righ was so much more spectacular than a mere three games in the standings, and far too dramatic for a non-championship coach like Dan McCarney - whose 2003 Cyclones also fell off a cliff following the graduation of Seneca Wallce - to possibly survive professionally. It was almost too much for Meyer to survive physically, because his senior-laden front allowed a league-worst 38 sacks, along with 31 more tackles for loss not inflicted on the quarterback, facilitating the worst per carry average in the Big 12, too, with the exception of the all-time rushing futility of Baylor.
Yet both of those measures, incredibly, were actually slight improvements on 2005's returns; the much larger culprit was the defense's inability to slow down a running game, any running game (see above the 50 percent soar in opponents' yards per carry last year, which is even greater when restricted to Big 12 games), and the subsequent ease with which quarterbacks shredded the off-balance, run-oriented back seven. ISU went very quickly from stonewalling opposing backs and intercepting nearly twice as many passes as it allowed for touchdowns to playing the role of half-hearted blocking dummies doomed to give up four times as many throws for scores (26) as it picked off (6). The '06 offense actually did a slightly better job hanging onto the ball than its more successful predecessor, but the team's turnover margin plummeted from plus-14 to minus-5 because of the lack of pressure by the defense, and field position and points and wins followed.
So, so long ago, but a few of these guys are still around.
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Hence, Chizik, a supposedly aggressive "Tampa 2" disciple who directed top ten defenses of perfect teams at Auburn in 2004 and Texas in 2005. His kids at UT last year finished third nationally against the run. That won't be repeated, especially by a team that bids sayonora to two veterans, Brent Curvey and Shawn Moorehead, who anchored a good line as juniors and were statistically productive even on last year's terrible effort. But given the team's recent history, and Chizik's, and the presence of four guys with some starting experience, last year's virtual red carpet shouldn't be rolled out for opposing backs, either. Chizik is supposed to be intense, and if this is so, and this is an attribute worth anything to begin with, ISU will be tougher against the run.
This was Chizik's greatest concern in the spring, and what the Cyclones should be worrying about, not Meyer or the departure of 80 percent of the worst non-Baylor offensive line in the conference. Meyer is a four-year starter with enough demonstrable competence and athleticism to get ISU into a bowl game - though also probably enough demonstrable inconsistency to ensure that game is the Independence Bowl - and he should be satisfied with the hire of spread guru Robert McFarland as offensive coordinator. The spread doesn't ask a physically overmatched line to win individual battles in a box packed with defenders, and often creates a "running" game through safe, sack-averse hitches and screens. JUCO savior J.J.
Milan Bass and free safety convert Jason Harris, he of the 81-yard run in the spring game, are better fits for a spread contraption than bulky, low-octane, injury prone plodder Stevie Hicks, who started for four years and only scored 11 touchdowns. Receiver Todd Blythe has 26 touchdowns in three years, even as his soaring freshman per catch average (21.4) falls steadily to the earth; Blythe missed three of the Cyclones' lowest-scoring games late last year, then found an apparent compliment in R.J. Sumrall, a track guy whose contributed sporadically over two years but ignited* for 134 yards and a touchdown on six catches in the spring. Predictions are best not made on scrimmage anecdotes, but the mix of old and new blood here is some indicator of cautious optimism from the conference's second-lowest scoring team.
No, the difference between a return to the delights of [insert obscure sponsor] Bowl Week and the projected basement-wallowing in an egalitarian division will be Chizik's influence on the front seven, which could also be relying on consecutive planes of JUCO transfers at one defensive tackle and middle linebacker. Risky business. But five seven-win seasons in seven years doesn't allow for much patience with last place rebuilding.
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* - Sumrall did not literally ignite.