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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Iowa State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Iowa State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 3-9 (2-6 Big 12, 6th North)
2003-07: 23-37 (11-29 Big 12)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2003-07: 42 • 58 • 63 • 60 • 62
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (7 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
One of the reasons so many teams in the Big 12 were offensive juggernauts: no pass rush. ISU’s Kurt Taylor, coming off an injury that blew up his entire sophomore season in 2006, finished second in the conference with just 6.5 sacks from defensive tackle. This is not so overwhelming, but of the two players ISU is pimping for all-conference honors this season (along with receiver R.J. Sumrall), at least Taylor’s numbers were good enough to earn a rank.
The More You Know
Iowa State is home to the first electronic digital computing device, i.e., calculator, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, capable of solving up to 29 simultaneous linear equations before it was abandoned for more serious, war-related projects – like the atomic bomb – in 1942. For the nerds (who would already know this if they were real nerds), it was the first machine to use binary digits to represent all numbers and data, to use electronics rather than wheels, ratchets or mechanical switches, and to separate computation and memory. Actually, these days, ISU is only home to a replica, which looks something like a typewriter. A 700-pound typewriter, build in a grad student’s basement.
*According to Rivals
Iowa State's season went through three distinct cycles last year, Gene Chizik's first as boss:
September: Disaster. ISU lost its first two games to MAC also-ran Kent State and I-AA Northern Iowa, both by two scores, and then to another MAC also-ran, Toledo. If not for an inexplicable upset of Iowa in between, it would have been the worst opening month in the country, all things considered.

October: A winless month, but one of undeniable progress by fire against a brutal series of ranked teams. Compare the losses to Texas Tech (by 25 points) and Texas (by 53 points) to the losses to Oklahoma (by ten points, with the game still in doubt well into the fourth quarter) and to Missouri (in which ISU outgained the Tigers while holding them to a regular season low in total offense), and you get a picture of a team clearly moving forward.

November: Breakthrough. Out of kiln of the league's heavy hitters, ISU won two straight over Kansas State and Colorado, both of which came in above .500 with major upsets on their record (Texas in Kansas State's case, Oklahoma for Colorado).

Does that mean anything for 2008? It might look that way, if not for the ending: the validation of the upward arc would have been an upset, or at least some sort of a scrappy scare, against Kansas - despite the records, after all, it's not like Kansas has some kind of overwhelming talent advantage. The Jayhawks won 45-7. So much for momentum.

What's Changed. Ninety-three percent of the passes Iowa State attempted since 2004 were from the scattershot arm of Bret Meyer, and the only reason the number wasn't higher is that it took Meyer a few games to take a firm hold on the job as a redshirt freshman and coaches decided to get a head start in the transition to Austen Arnaud at the end of last year's debacle. Meyer threw every pass in 2005 and all but four - double throws off screen passes, a fake punt, etc. - in 2006. But Meyer is one of these guys whose around forever and is just...around. He never really improved; statistically, in fact, quite the opposite. Meyer didn't have a single game as a sophomore with a passer rating as low as his season average as a senior, which in the end was a gaping thirty points back of his 2005 efficiency. His TD:INT ratio went from +4 as a freshman to +9 his second year, then back down to even in 2006 and finally to -4 last year. His yards and yards per attempt dipped every season.

So there's probably not a lot of gnashing of teeth over Arnaud, whose most significant playing time came in the wins over Kansas State, against whom he led a touchdown drive, and Colorado. The other guy in the mix is Phillip Bates, a good high school passer (Spring guide indicates he set school passing records in Omaha) with enough athleticism that he played in ten games as a receiver and made a critical catch to set up the winning field goal against Iowa (though, if you'll notice in the clip, he doesn't exactly burn a much bigger Hawkeye linebacker down the field). Even if they have to go spread option crazy because they're scared to let the new guy throw, this is bound to be a lateral shift at worst from the slowly sinking ship of the last two years.

What's the Same. Almost everything is the same, though not in a good way, since the few departures from the starting lineup were the most productive: Meyer, leading receiver Todd Blythe, leading tacklers Alvin Bowen and Jon Banks. There is a good bit of returning experience, and it is career rabble, used to finishing at the bottom of the conference in almost every way.

The table was tragically destroyed when Chizik attacked his reflection.
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The running game is in conceivably competent hands, even after most frequently-used back J.J. Bass was suspended over the weekend. Freshman Alexander Robinson had a couple big games as the offense found a little life down the stretch, including the best day (149 yards on 7.1 per carry) any single running back had against Missouri all season and a 127-yard, two-touchdown effort in the win over Colorado. Robinson is the best bet on paper to handle most of the carries, though he only got into the lineup after an injury to Jason Scales, who is on top of the "official" Spring depth chart. None of the top ballcarriers - Robinson, Bass or Scales - topped four yards per carry on the season, anyway.

Hail, Hail, the Bubble Screen's Still Here. How low-flow the offense was outside of Blythe, Meyer's main target all four years they played together, and the only big-play guy? Returnees Marquis Hamilton and R.J. Sumrall caught 99 passes last year. One was for a touchdown. Blythe had an incredible knack for the end zone, averaging about one score per five or six catches every year. One in five or six vs. One in ninety-nine.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. If Arnaud led the quarterback derby heading into practice, Bates separated himself from the bench at least a little in the Spring gamescrimmage:

I thought that (quarterback) Phillip (Bates) did some things that were really nice. Phillip drove the  football team better today than (quarterback) Austen (Arnaud). That doesn't mean that is always the case. Everyone who was out there saw that Phil moved our football team. At the end of the day, we are going to see who moves our team the best and who turns the ball over the least. It was real clear cut today and today that was Phillip. But that certainly, in my mind, doesn't separate the two. There were days when it was exactly the opposite.
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As to the actual success of either quarterback, though, Chizik also offers this clue as to his expectations:
Today, we couldn't get a first down. That is not all bad.
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First downs: overrated. Frustrating the hell out of everyone by doing the whole "look to the sidelines" thing for the play after you've already lined up? According to Bates, ¡que magnifico!
It looks like you guys are integrating something new with the quarterbacks looking over the sidelines at the line of scrimmage.

"We started that before the spring [practices]. It's something that we've worked on and have tried
to get better at, with signals and stuff. We're getting better, but we have to work harder."

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Is that all you need, guys? Yes? Okay, Philip, thank you. That was perfect. Here is your brain. See you at totally voluntary workouts this summer, right? Ha ha, great. Of course we will. You can untie those leather straps now, fellas!

Iowa State on You Tube. You might think the new branding effort is a harmless way for "Cyclone Nation" to band together under derivative uniforms and a huge letter of the alphabet. You might also be a Cy-hating Communist:

An informal tally of mascot-specific helmet logos in Div. I-A: uh, Mike the Tiger? I think the various buffaloes, longhorns, beavers, razorbacks, trojans, wildcats, hawkeyes, etc. are a little too generic to qualify. But at least those things are what they claim to be, whereas Cy is in no way an actual Cyclone. He just rides around in one because he's too lazy to fly, like a regular cardinal or whatever he is. Give it up, guys.

See Also: Campus scenes: 1932, 1946, 1963, and under siege from a tornado. ... A student in an ISU dorm actually gets four solid minutes out of this Cribs spoof. Nice editing, but what's with the OU flag? ... Hammer vs. Roorda in the Iowa State Syrup Challenge. ... And this run will never get old.

Best-Case: Turning the thing around, one quasi-upset at a time. For some reason, the team tends to talk in interviews in terms of winning the conference; this is uplifting, rhetorically, and completely crazy based on all available evidence. The best ISU can hope for is something of a breakout season for one of the two promising sophomores in the backfield, Bates and Robinson, an inspired leap to mediocrity by the defense and regression from one of the three rivals on the schedule (Colorado, Kansas State and Oklahoma State) that seem somewhat within reach.

Worst-Case: Patron coach of lost causes. Since the entire conference outside of Baylor looks at ISU and licks its chops, the Big 12 schedule can be written off as a lost cause, in the 1-7 range. It's not certain the offense will be in sync enough early to keep up with Kent State and/or UNLV in September. A loss in either of those games could condemn them to 2-10 purgatory, a backwards step Chizik may not be able to endure.

Non-Binding Forecast: One tiny step forward or Bust. There's no reason at all to expect the Cyclones to be better on the field, though it's also unlikely ISU will bite the dust again against an early spate of mid-major walkovers. Even if it starts 3-1 in non-conference play, though, instead of 1-3, it will take an upset to get State even to two Big 12 wins. Chizik can count it a big step forward to get to 5-7.