Marner: Iowa State’s first half will make or break season

Head coach Matt Campbell speaks to a room of reporters in the Bergstrom Football Complex during the 2018 Media day on Aug. 7.

Aaron Marner

Last year, Matt Campbell and company clinched a bowl berth on Oct. 28 after beating No. 4 TCU, 14-7. Even though Iowa State lost three of the final four regular season games, the end of the season was a success, due in large part to the rigorous schedule the Cyclones faced near the finish line and, of course, the victory in the Liberty Bowl to cap off the season.

The Cyclones won’t have that luxury this year. They can’t afford to lose three games in November of 2018. And because of that, the first half will make or break Iowa State’s season.

Getting off to a 6-2 start like they did in 2017 would virtually guarantee a Big 12 Championship bid for the Cyclones if they can repeat that in 2018.

There are some big roster changes. Three of last year’s four leading receivers are gone, along with leading tackler Joel Lanning. As a result, Iowa State can’t afford to ease into the season.

“We’re taking it one day at a time,” said redshirt senior linebacker Willie Harvey. “Like coach Campbell mentioned, nobody’s gonna be surprised by us anymore. We have to come out and play from the jump.”

Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor are the three teams who were picked to finish below Iowa State in the Big 12 preseason poll. The Cyclones get them back-to-back-to-back from Oct. 27 through Nov. 10 this year.

But before that? It’s brutal.

Other than the opener against South Dakota State and a home game with Akron in late September, the first seven games will be tough tests, even for a veteran group.

At Iowa in week two. Reigning Big 12 champions Oklahoma to start off conference play. Last year’s second-place finisher, TCU, on the road for the second game of the Big 12 slate. Then last year’s No. 3 team in the league, Oklahoma State, also on the road, for the third Big 12 game.

Let’s tally that up.

Iowa State’s first three Big 12 games are against last season’s best, second best and third best teams, in order — and two of them are on the road.

And the cherry on top? Iowa State’s reward for navigating that stretch is a matchup with preseason No. 17 West Virginia.


“Probably last year [other teams] didn’t focus on us,” Harvey said. “Now they’re watching extra film. We’ve got to have a sense of urgency this year.”

I don’t know what Iowa State’s record will be after they get through West Virginia in game No. 7, but it gets easier after that.

Bill Connelly of SB Nation wrote in his season preview that Iowa State “plays four projected top-40 teams on the road, and while Oklahoma does have to come to Ames, let’s just say the odds are good that the Sooners don’t throw it in cruise this time.”

Simply surviving that stretch may be enough for Iowa State to have another strong season. The final five games should be a breeze, relatively speaking.

The game at Texas could be tough — and let’s not pretend Iowa State has had even slight success against Kansas State in the past decade — but overall, the last five games are very, very manageable for a team of Iowa State’s caliber.

That’s what makes the first seven so important — those final five games should be about pushing for a conference title or solidifying a better bowl bid. That won’t be the case if the Cyclones get tripped up too many times before mid-October.

The program’s next step isn’t about fighting for a bowl game in November — a proper step up would be walking into Austin, Texas, on Nov. 17 with a trip to the Big 12 Championship looming.