Season preview: changing expectations

Iowa State football players celebrate their 21-20 win over Memphis during the 59th Annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 30, 2017.

Isd Sports Staff

Iowa State opens the third year of the Matt Campbell era this Saturday at 7 p.m. against South Dakota State. Through two years, Campbell and his staff have revolutionized the program and taken it to heights unseen.

The 2017 campaign saw two victories over top-5 ranked opponents, along with the fourth bowl win in school history.

This season figures to be pivotal for the program — can the Cyclones continue to ascend on the national stage, moving up the ladder in the Big 12? Or was 2017 a flash in the pan?


Iowa State opened the 2017 season with tempered expectations. The team hadn’t won more than three games in a season since 2012. Year one of the Campbell era ended with a 3-9 record.

You know the story by now. Joel Lanning, a former quarterback, started at middle linebacker. Kyle Kempt, the walk-on quarterback who had never started a game in four years of college, took over halfway through the season.

The Cyclones rattled off an epic October, grabbed a bid into the Liberty Bowl, and capped the season with a win over Memphis in the Tigers’ own stadium.

Now? Now, expectations are different.

The success of 2017 is fresh on everyone’s mind. A year ago, 6-6 would have pleased a lot of fans — yet many would consider six wins in 2018 to be a disappointment.

Win eight games again, contend for the Big 12 title, and the Matt Campbell to [insert big name school here] rumors will continue. But struggle to reach a bowl game, come out flat to start the year against the cream of the crop in the Big 12, and the doubters will be proven right.

Each week will be different this year. Iowa State won’t sneak up on anyone this time around.

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

The top two teams from last year’s Big 12 standings will both have the Cyclones circled on their calendars. Oklahoma won’t soon forget its lone loss of the 2017 campaign, which came at the hands of Kyle Kempt and Iowa State. TCU faced some roster turnover from last year but the memory of last year’s loss in Ames won’t be forgotten, either.


Campbell can’t talk about them enough.

Iowa State has had issues with closing out games for years now, and especially in the Matt Campbell era. Close losses include games against Northern Iowa, Oklahoma State and Baylor in 2016 and Oklahoma State, Kansas State, West Virginia and Iowa from last year. The Cyclones had seven (seven!) games last season that were decided by a touchdown or less. Looking at the schedule, there’s potential for there to be just as many, if not MORE, contests that go down to the wire.

Even in September alone, Oklahoma and Iowa present challenges that could be extremely tight contests when it gets down to winning time. West Virginia, TCU and Oklahoma State were all tight games last season, and they protect to be just as hard to predict in 2018.

Last season was the first time in at least 16 seasons that Iowa State had a positive point differential. 16 years! The Cyclones have been living in the red, but now they live in the grey area of close games and toss-ups. The football wizard Bill Connelly of SBNation sees Iowa State finishing anywhere from 4-8 to 9-3 (his S&P+ system projects the team to finish 6-6).

Campbell likes to reference Kansas State and Bill Snyder as examples of building a consistent bowl team out of thin air. Kansas State lives off of keeping games close and winning those close games. As much as Iowa State fans might not like to hear it, Iowa does the same things. Teams without a long history of success lean on close games in order to sometimes overachieve.

The controversial finishes of the Oklahoma State and Kansas State games aside, Iowa State can (potentially) win more games this year by learning from some of their Big 12 counterparts. The more comfortable the Cyclones become in crunch time, the closer they’ll get to reaching the next level.


Campbell also can’t talk about these enough, either.

Turnovers have been the backbone of Iowa State’s focus since Campbell and his staff’s arrival to Ames. When the Cyclones turned to Kyle Kempt — a quarterback who’d never taken a meaningful collegiate snap — in 2017, not only was his poise appealing, but also Kempt’s knack to protect the ball.

After the sometimes turnover-prone Jacob Park was relieved of the starting duties under center, Kempt made it a priority to protect the ball.

Park tossed five interceptions in five games played, while Kempt limited the turnovers to three in nine games played. Redshirt sophomore Zeb Noland had one interception on 66 pass attempts last season.

“No. 1 was turnovers,” Campbell said at media day about the first stat he looked to after the season. “We start every fall camp meeting, we start our No. 1 meeting to start every season [with] that number [of turnovers].”

With Kempt regulating the interceptions for most the season, another Iowa State star anchored the Cyclones’ ball protecting rushing.

Junior running back David Montgomery is a versatile back who has a wide array of skills. He can pinball off Big 12 defenders, make opponents miss and catch passes out of the back field.

Regardless of how he gets the ball, Montgomery is dangerous with it in his hands. And rarely does it leave his hand, too.

The Cyclone offense nearly went unscathed in the fumble department last season. In the final game of Iowa State’s season, Montgomery coughed it up near the goal line to end the streak.

The lone fumble marked the fewest by an FBS team since the 2004 Northern Illinois team, but a fumble-free season would’ve etched Iowa State into the NCAA record book.

Even though the Cyclones missed an opportunity for history, the emphasis on ball protection is obvious.

Throughout Campbell’s opening press conference at media day in early August, the third-year Iowa State coach had a few statistics off the top of his head on the impact turnovers make to a game.

Campbell gave a spiel about his personal valuation of turnovers and added that Iowa State is 10-2 in games with a positive turnover margin since his time in Ames.

The Cyclones should figure to be in a handful of close games as previously mentioned, and to snag more close wins against top Big 12 opponents, Iowa State will rely on the turnover battle.