Rohlfing: Cyclones’ spot in preseason Top-25 means they’ll be the hunted, not the hunters, this season


Taylor Shaw/Iowa State Daily

Coach Matt Campbell argues with a ref after a play at the Alamo Bowl game Dec. 28. Campbell’s staff secured the commitment from six mid-summer recruits, including quarterback Hunter Dekkers.

Noah Rohlfing

It’s tempting to go all-in on preseason expectations.

For instance, ever since I can remember USC has been touted as a top-15 team before each season, and nearly every year has ended with the Trojans not being a factor in the College Football Playoff picture apart from a 10-3 season in 2016.

(It looks as though voters have written off the Trojans this year, though — USC got a solitary vote in the AP poll, the first time since 2001 the Trojans weren’t ranked.)

However, it’s hard not to look at the Preseason AP Poll that came out last Monday and notice one name sticking out like a sore thumb — the No. 21 Iowa State Cyclones. 

This is the first time since 1978 the Cyclones have been voted as a top-25 team before the season kicked off. That Iowa State team started the year ranked No. 20 and finished the season 8-4 under Earle Bruce. 

This season’s team has higher expectations — both from reporters and from inside the team. Ranked in both the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll, voters are aware of what coach Matt Campbell has built as he enters his fourth season. 

Campbell said during Media Day festivities early in August that the expectations are high in the Iowa State locker room.

“As soon as we moved the needle, you felt like it was this wave of optimism that was going on and you almost had to tamper it, going even back to year one,” Campbell said. “There is no greater expectation that really anybody in this room has or anybody outside of our walls has than what our coaching staff has for ourselves.”

But what do the preseason polls mean other than “we notice you?”

For some schools, it can be a sign of name-brand recognition — think USC and Texas getting top-25 recognition in the preseason during their down periods, or Nebraska clocking in at No. 24 in this year’s preseason poll despite a 4-8 record in 2018 in the first year of the Scott Frost era. (The crazy part? That’s probably not too much of a reach.) 

But Iowa State finds itself in a group of teams that either heavily overachieved or fell short of expectations in 2018: Washington State (23) and Syracuse (22) had 10-win seasons in 2018, while Wisconsin (19), Nebraska (24) and Stanford (25) didn’t improve on their 2017 records.

All of this is to say that the Cyclones step into a poll — and a college football landscape — that is as up-and-down as ever, despite the stranglehold Alabama and Clemson (which is just Fun Alabama) have on the top two spots. And while poring over the poll, I had this realization: While it’s a meaningful step forward in the public space for the Cyclones to be ranked and a sign of the strides the program has made under Campbell, it doesn’t mean anything in the long run unless the Cyclones produce results on the field. 

There’s an inherent pressure from being ranked — it means that the hunters are now the hunted, and Iowa State has had almost no history of playing the favorite at a national level. In the past 15 years, the the Cyclones have gained most of their prominence as the spoilers — think the 2009 9-7 win over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium, the 2011 Oklahoma State victory that had a part in the dismantling of the BCS system or 2017’s 38-31 victory over Oklahoma — but aside from the Oklahoma and Texas games in this upcoming season, there will be an expectation for the Cyclones to win.

How they handle that pressure will define this Iowa State season. Campbell has had to deal with being the hunted before — at Toledo, his teams were at or near the top of the MAC year in and year out. But this is a different type of pressure, simply because the Big 12 is a different type of conference. Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech are unranked conference opponents with the ability to upset the Cyclones if they’re not at their best. 

Saturday’s game against UNI should be a win — but the first real test of whether the Cyclones can handle being the hunted won’t come against Iowa or Louisiana-Monroe, either. It’s the team’s Sept. 28 trip to Baylor that has caught my eye. 

Baylor has some bad memories of its trip to Ames last season (a 28-14 loss that included an on-field fracas) and will likely be out for revenge on its home turf. Charlie Brewer is back, and while Jalen Hurd is gone, coach Matt Rhule is steadily building the Bears into a tough squad near the top of the Big 12’s trailing pack.

Starting conference play with a road win against a solid team could prove to be a catalyst for a special season. Obviously, it’s not that simple, but in a micro sense it’s the first chance for Iowa State to be the hunted outside of its home stadium. 

Iowa State has a lot to prove this year. If they don’t live up to the preseason hype, this season won’t be seen as a success. And that ranking? It will be just another historical statistic, nothing more.