Martin: Ranking Iowa State’s nine conference games by importance

Iowa State wide receiver Tarique Milton looks for room during the first half of the Sept. 12, 2020, game on the MidAmerican Energy Field at Jack Trice Stadium.

Zach Martin

Boy, the non-conference slate went by fast, didn’t it? Felt like everyone was a member of a John Calipari recruiting class, one and done.

So all Iowa State had was a single game before Big 12 play began. In a normal season, it might have two or three. Well, the drum has been beat hard that this isn’t a normal season.

Those games where you work out the kinks, sharpen the skills and go through game management in real time? The Cyclones didn’t really do that in their 31-14 loss to No. 19 Louisiana.

Instead, they had more problems than answers. A stagnant offense, a secondary that got burned multiple times in the second half and a front seven that couldn’t get to the quarterback consistently.

Thankfully, Iowa State had a bye week before the conference season opens up Saturday on the road against TCU to get those problems figured out.

Now that the meat and potatoes of the season is here in late-September, let’s dive into the nine Big 12 contests on the Cyclones’ schedule and rank them by how important the individual game is.

Buckle up, it’s going to feel like a sprint onward to Dallas for the championship game.

No. 9 – at Kansas (Oct. 31)

If Iowa State loses to the Jayhawks, I won’t even know what to say. My jaw will drop to the floor; my head will scratch; my brain won’t be able to process what just happened. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to write under a 1,200-word column.

Could this be a trap game before Baylor comes to Ames the following week? Sure, I guess, but this is the least important game on the schedule.

No. 8 – Texas Tech (Oct. 10)

This contest is the second of a two-game home stand and comes before the second bye week on the schedule. The Red Raiders barely got past Houston Baptist in Week 1 and will come to Ames after facing No. 8 Texas and Kansas State.

Like the Kansas game, this one is very low on importance.

No. 7 – West Virginia (Dec. 5)

If we’re looking at this based on top tier, middle tier and bottom tier, this is borderline middle tier importance for two reasons.

The first is obviously senior night: recognizing the 16 seniors and all their accomplishments. I’m a sucker for senior nights; I just love them and all they entail.

But if we’re looking at it from a logistic standpoint, this can determine what happens for Iowa State in terms of final placement in the conference and a potential bowl game. It does make for a very important game, just not the most important.

No. 6 – Kansas State (Nov. 21)

Middle of November is when a lot of teams are hitting their strides and peaking. It’s usually when the best of the best shine. That’s no different when Iowa State hosts the Wildcats.

I pegged Kansas State as my sneaky dark horse to play in the Big 12 title game because of how good Head Coach Chris Klieman is. He can turn average talent and make them great.

Coming off either a Baylor win or loss and the final bye week, it will give an indication on how the Cyclones approach the final two weeks and what they have left to play for.

Plus, I think this will be a really good game.

No. 5 – Baylor (Nov. 7)

I’m not as high on the Bears this season, but it’s still a great test for Iowa State to have the runner-up come to town at the halfway point of the season.

Charlie Brewer leads that explosive offense yet again, and how he and new offensive coordinator Larry Fedora work together is going to be intriguing to watch.

That defense will obviously get better under new Head Coach Dave Aranda, but how soon? Baylor’s heart of the schedule is loaded with Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State bunched up in under one month. Only the game against the Cowboys is at home.

The Bears will be tested and ready for anything by kickoff in early November, and that’s why it’s important for the Cyclones to take this game incredibly seriously.

No. 4 – at TCU (Sept. 26)

My colleague Stephen recently wrote a column on why he believes this Saturday’s game is the most important on Iowa State’s schedule.

I half-agree with him. While I do believe it is very important, it’s not the most important.

If the Cyclones start 0-2, you’ll hear the panic sirens all over Ames. You’ll hear calls for Matt Campbell to be fired and Brock Purdy to be benched. All the blasphemy and all lunacy will spew for a few days.

Iowa State knows it can’t afford an 0-1 start to the Big 12 season, already putting it behind the eight ball for a chance at a title shot. So it’ll approach this game against the Horned Frogs with plenty of focus.

No. 3 – Oklahoma (Oct. 3)

This might be a weird placement, but hear me out. I think a lot of people who cover the Big 12 agree that the top three teams are Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State; Iowa State and Baylor have the fourth and fifth spots.

If the Cyclones can win this game, which I think they will, it not only steals a game from a top-five opponent like the Sooners but also puts a potential tiebreaker in their favor.

We all know that those top-three will beat each other up during the Red River Rivalry and Bedlam. I don’t see a situation where one comes out undefeated over the other.

Iowa State has to steal at least two of the games. This is one of them.

No. 2 – at Oklahoma State (Oct. 24)

First road game against a top-10 team, offenses shining with standout running backs, defenses needing to prove something and coaches that are outstanding.

Can’t really ask for much more than this.

By the time this one kicks off, the Cyclones will be three weeks out from playing Oklahoma while the Cowboys will be a week out from playing Baylor.

Both sides will have already started to get a taste for how physical the top end of the conference will be. This one will prove who has the fortitude to push toward the top.

No. 1 – at Texas (Nov. 27)

I think this is the game that determines the second spot for the Big 12 title showdown against Oklahoma State, my preseason pick.

At home, hopefully under the lights and Iowa State still has that one loss to Louisiana. Texas and Oklahoma have two losses.

If Iowa State wins, they get the tiebreaker over the Longhorns and Sooners. If Iowa State loses, it all of a sudden needs help.

What better way to relax after Thanksgiving than by watching Sam Ehlinger and Purdy battle it out for the right to play in Jerry’s World?

That is why Iowa State vs. Texas is by far the most important game on the schedule.