Opinion: Questions linger for Iowa State as the season approaches

Iowa State’s defense waits for play to resume during the first half against Louisiana. on Sept. 12, 2020.

The 2021 football season will come with plenty of well-deserved hype for the Iowa State Cyclones. But when anticipation is this high for a program entering the season with its highest preseason ranking ever, there has to be some sense of uncertainty mixed in under the surface.

The three writers covering the Cyclones on the gridiron for the Daily this fall — Matt Belinson, Sam Stuve and James Powell — went ahead and aired their biggest question surrounding Iowa State before the season begins Sept. 4 vs. the University of Northern Iowa.

Let the questions swirl.

Belinson: Kickoffs

It’s not the flashiest aspect of a football team bringing back 19 starters from a 9-3 season, but I don’t have many questions needing to be answered outside of this.

If you paid any sort of attention to the 2020 season for Iowa State, you saw kickoffs hurt the Cyclones in some of the biggest stages of their season.

I’d argue kickoffs and subsequent kickoff coverage cost the Cyclones a chance to win the Big 12 Championship and win their season opener vs. Louisiana. With that in mind, I have to wonder if that weakness can be fixed this year.

Andrew Mevis was brought in from Fordham University to shore up the kickoff game this year for Iowa State, and Cyclone fans better hope he can. The Cyclones had 10 touchbacks and three kicks go out of bounds last season. If you want to know how much they need to turn kickoffs around, I wrote 700 words on it a few weeks back.

But if we flip over to Iowa State returning kicks, the Cyclones have to find a way to make up for the loss of Kene Nwangwu. Matt Campbell wasn’t shy about Nwangwu’s impact in 2020, saying that without the reliable returner, Iowa State likely doesn’t beat Oklahoma, TCU and other opponents.

Will the job be given to Tarique Milton or Xavier Hutchinson? Perhaps Breece Hall or Jirehl Brock will get the nod.

Field position wins games and Iowa State lost that battle a majority of the time last year. If 2021 is going to be different, questions have to be answered on kickoffs.

Stuve: Will Tarique Milton have a big bounce back season?

Last year, Tarique Milton seemed poised for a big 2020 season, following his 2019 season when he had 35 receptions for 722 yards and three touchdowns as the Cyclones’ over-the-top threat.

But because of the injury bug, Milton missed half the season last year and only had 15 receptions, 102 yards and didn’t have a single receiving touchdown. This season, I think Milton has the potential to have a big bounce back season.

The 5 feet 10 inches senior from Bradenton, Florida, presents Iowa State with big-play opportunities and the stats show he was a big play receiver for Iowa State in years past, averaging 12.3 yards per reception in 2018 and 20.6 in 2019. 

Another thing working in Milton’s favor is that he has a fourth year quarterback and a Heisman Trophy contender in Brock Purdy throwing to him. 

Throughout the entirety of the spring and in fall camp, his teammates and coaches have said that they’ve seen growth from him.

Specifically Nate Scheelhaase, who coaches running backs and wide receivers, said Milton is “in as good of a spot as a player than he’s ever been,” in the program. Additionally, Scheelhaase said he’s seen growth in his awareness, specifically with running routes and the mental side of the game.

With the season-opener against Northern Iowa less than two weeks away, it is almost time to see how Milton, who is now healthy, can make an impact for the Iowa State offense. If he can get back on the field healthy and be the player he was in 2019, this offense could take another step forward.

Powell: How competitive will the season-opener be?

It’s pretty standard practice for a team in the Power Five to start off their respective seasons against team like Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, or the Ragin’ Cajuns from University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It’s a way to get their season started off on the right foot against teams who don’t recruit as highly as the Cyclones.

In the case of Iowa State, however, it has recently become a concerning point when discussing just how good they can be.

Last year, the Cyclones faltered in the first game of the season against Louisiana-Lafayette. That cost them a mark in the loss column and created warranted scrutiny that would follow them to the end of the season and beyond.

This year’s team has aspirations higher than the Big 12 and stumbling out of the gate can’t occur if those goals have a chance of happening.

While the Ragin’ Cajuns ended up being better than anyone anticipated in 2020 (picking up a win against Iowa State helped that), this situation is not unique to last year. Northern Iowa took them to three overtimes in Jack Trice Stadium in 2019, and quite honestly I’m not sure the Cyclones deserved a win there. They lost to Northern Iowa in 2016’s season opener, Matt Campbell’s first game as head coach.

It’s imperative that if the Cyclones want to be taken seriously on the national stage, they play up to their potential in every game, instead of making every game worth sweating over.