Belinson: When the magic bites back

Brock Purdy takes a snap from his own end zone in Iowa State’s 30-7 win in Ames over the Texas Longhorns on Nov. 6, 2021.

Matt Belinson

We were all wrong. There’s no other way to say it.

Entering this season, Iowa State’s goals of making it back to the Big 12 Championship seemed not only within reach, but nearly pre-determined. With 22 starters returning from the greatest season in the program’s history and a win in a New Year’s Six bowl, the odds seemed in the Cyclones’ favor to do special things.

And there was no other way we looked at it. We got caught up in our own anticipation and let nothing taint that experience, the build-up.

But we were foolish to think it was going to be nothing but a magical ride along the way. No missteps or head-scratching failures. We were foolish to think 2021 was written in the stars for Iowa State. Foolish to think hardship was a thing of the past at this school, in this program, even with these caliber of players. 

This outcome, sitting at 6-4 and 4-3 in Big 12 play, and this possibility of disappointment, was always a possibility. A damn-real possibility. But belief became trusted more than reality.

And it’s what made Saturday’s 41-38 loss sting more than usual to those who believed this year was going to be the one. And on a 62-yard field goal no less.

But let me put my cards on the table.

I had this team going 10-2 and making it back to the Big 12 title game. I didn’t see a notable flaw on the roster. I couldn’t picture upset losses that would sink a ship on its way to paradise. I drank the Kool-Aid. And I discounted the idea of something different, as did most.

And this isn’t a think piece arguing that Iowa State shouldn’t have been praised in the preseason as one of the nation’s best.

When you’ve got the talent Iowa State has in Breece Hall, Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar, Mike Rose and Will McDonald, just to name a few, and win as much as the Cyclones did in 2020, why not aim for the moon? This team is underachieving. No doubt about it.

But ignorance is bliss as they say.

Did we spend more time analyzing how and why the Cyclones won nine games in 2020 or how many they would surely add on in 2021? You know the answer.

Regression was always a possibility. A realistic one? I certainly didn’t think so. And neither did you. Not to this level with a 4-3 conference record in the middle of November.

But we all were wrong to not at least entertain it. Has winning at Iowa State ever been easy? Has it ever been a sure-thing? Many of us observers said ‘No’ to those questions but chose to ignore it anyway. And we let perfection be the guiding light.

As much as I predicted another magical season, was that something worth counting on without a shadow of a doubt? Hindsight is 20-20 but it certainly doesn’t feel like that was the smart move.

It was magical 2020 season for this program. But look at the facts of the matter — the ones we cast to the side to make room for fun win projections for the season ahead and continue to project 2020 success into a brand new gauntlet.

Iowa State managed the COVID-19 pandemic better than anyone in the Big 12, with no games on the Cyclones’ schedule being canceled or postponed due to an outbreak. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of the league. And that certainly helped in the war of attrition that this sport is.

Remember the beatdown the Cyclones handed West Virginia and Kansas State last year? The Wildcats were ‘on the cusp’ of not meeting the Big 12’s roster minimum and West Virginia had key members of its two-deep not travel to Ames.

But we let the wins speak for themselves and didn’t think of the unique circumstances the pandemic gave Iowa State on its magical ride.

And flash forward to vaccines and a healthier roster, and the Mountaineers took it to the Cyclones and gave them one of their many disappointing losses this season.

Perhaps the gap wasn’t as wide as we thought between Iowa State and the rest of this conference. But again, we let hearts do the talking and lead our expectations to nothing but unbridled winning from start to finish.

It might be hard to remember, but half of Iowa State’s eight regular season wins were one score games in 2020.

Maybe it was never going to be like that again. Maybe 2020 was the ceiling. Could there have been more to achieve? There’s no doubt about it. But we were fools to think it was going to 100 percent happen.

And I know what you’re probably saying, ‘Matt, no one said they were going undefeated or making the College Football Playoff.’

But I’d encourage you to find preseason predictions from us here in Iowa or across the country because there was plenty of that talk out there. And I’d imagine passionate fans felt the same.

However, the harsh reality of realistic failure of the sport showed its ugly head in Lubbock, Texas, on Saturday for the Cyclones, who dropped their third road game this season.

And now, a fork in the road remains on a once-promising season with Oklahoma and TCU left on the regular season docket.

1) It can be a 8-4 regular season and the Cyclones play in a semi-respectable bowl game — still underachieving, but it’s not a complete disaster. 

2) Iowa State loses to both teams and finishes 6-6 in the regular season, earning a lower-tier bowl game and complete the season with a finish no one expected even in a worse-case scenario.

And yes, there is a scenario where the Cyclones finish these last two games 1-1. Anything is on the table at this point, except the one thing most of us projected to happen.

Maybe that’s our fault as the media. Maybe Iowa State is just not as good as we thought.

But like most things, it’s probably somewhere in-between. And I’m no longer a fool to think otherwise.