Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2021: 7. Iowa State Cyclones

Brock Purdy, Iowa State

 7. Iowa State Cyclones

With a Heisman candidate at RB and an elite defense, ISU will go toe-to-toe with OU in the Big 12 race

2020 Review
Iowa State opened up their 2020 campaign with a frustrating 17-point loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, a wake up call for a team that began the year ranked 23rd nationally. The loss proved to be an effective motivator the rest of the way, with the Cyclones losing just one more time en route to an 8-2 regular season. They had an opportunity to win their first Big 12 Title in school history in a rematch against Oklahoma, but came up just short in a 27-21 loss. However, the Cyclones responded by beating Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, a game they controlled the entire way. The victory moved ISU to 9-3 on the 2020 season, their most victories in the Matt Campbell era, even with a shortened schedule.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Offensive coordinator Tom Manning has been a longtime assistant with Matt Campbell, going back to their time with Toledo. This may be the best offense the pair have coached together, with just about everybody returning from last year's group.

It all begins with quarterback Brock Purdy, who enters his third full season as starter. He was highly productive in 2020 after a poor showing in the opener, finishing with 2,750 yards and 19 touchdowns, while earning All-Big 12 honors. The next step for the veteran is continuing to cut down on his turnovers, which are still an occasional problem, as well as playing his best in the big games. If he can do that, Purdy could remain the best QB in the league, even with Spencer Rattler at Oklahoma.

Purdy is joined in the backfield by All-American tailback Breece Hall. After a nice debut season in 2019, Hall truly broke out last fall, as he led all Power Five running backs with 1,572 yards, while adding 21 touchdowns. Hall is the type of hard-nosed, bell-cow back that Campbell covets, but he showed improved vision and decision-making last year. He could get even better this season, if he can improve as a receiver out of the backfield, which would put him in Heisman consideration. Hall is supported by a quality backup in redshirt freshman Jirehl Brock and true freshman Eli Sanders may get some looks as a change-of-pace option.

Iowa State's receiver corps isn't as flashy or well-known as other groups in the Big 12, but it may still be the best in the league. Former junior college transfer Xavier Hutchinson had a stellar 2020, leading the team with 64 catches for 771 yards and also earning All-Conference recognition. He's helped out by a group that includes junior Tarique Milton, sophomore Sean Shaw, and highly touted newcomer Jaylin Noel. Milton could be in store for a resurgent 2021, as he was never fully healthy a year ago.

In addition to the true wide receivers, ISU boasts a great 1-2 punch at tight end in Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen. Kolar managed 591 yards and seven touchdowns and likely would've been a fairly high NFL Draft selection, but instead decided to stay put for one more year. Allen's not quite as lethal of a weapon in the passing game as Kolar, but he was Second Team All-Big 12 in 2020. Allen's a stronger blocker than Kolar and also very effective in the red zone.

The Cyclone offensive line is light on big names, but is loaded with experience. Seven different players made starts on this O-Line last fall and every single one is returning. That includes guard Trevor Downing, who had a huge 2019, but was out for pretty much the entirety of 2020. Both tackle spots are in good hands with Jake Remsburg and Sean Foster, and there's plenty of depth on the perimeter.

There's obviously plenty of reasons for ISU fans to be excited about what this offense can do in 2021. There's proven star power at the skill positions, but also depth and experience throughout the unit. Even though this offense hasn't been traditionally explosive under Campbell, it could be a Top 10 group this season.

Defense: Defense has consistently been the strength of this program throughout most of the Campbell era and even though the offense is loaded, it likely will be again in 2021. The Cyclones boast a defense loaded with talent, one that could have as many as five or six All-Big 12 selections this fall.

Sophomore defensive end Will McDonald had a breakout 2020, leading the conference with 10.5 sacks. More teams will be dialed in on him with double and even triple teams this season, but McDonald is still growing as a pass rusher, and likely to put up strong numbers once again. He'll be flanked by nose guard Eyioma Uwazurike, who started all 12 games a season ago. Uwazurike fits the position description to a tee as a hard-nosed, physical run stuffer in the heart of the defense. It's unclear who will round out the D-Line in this 3-4 scheme. Redshirt freshman Corey Suttle played in seven games in 2020 and could be in line for a starting job, while junior Zach Peterson will also battle for snaps. Peterson has an edge in experience over most of the competition, likely making him the favorite. 

The Cyclones have the best linebacker corps in the Big 12, and I'm not sure it's even particularly close. Not only do they have Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Mike Rose returning, but also back is Fiesta Bowl MVP O'Rien Vance and senior Jake Hummel. Rose is the heart and soul of the defense, an intelligent defender with a limitless motor. It will be tough to replace as the DPOY, but expect him to be near the top of the league in tackles after notching 96 in 2020. Vance will handle middle linebacker duties, but blitzes more than most that play his position. Hummel has been considered more of a complementary piece to Rose than anything else, but he's more than that. He finished with 77 tackles and also proved his worth in coverage, with three interceptions. With this trio in the fold, Iowa State has no reason not to have one of the best rush defenses anywhere in the country.

Iowa State's pass defense was solid last year, but could be in store for an even better 2021. Every big name is returning, namely safety Greg Eisworth, who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility due to COVID. He can play either safety or nickelback at a high level, and finished with 47 tackles last season, earning him All-Conference honors. He is joined by a pair of proven corners in Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young. Neither are going to be elite playmakers, but they're well-rounded defenders who love to come up and play a role in run support. 

If there is a question on this defense, it may be the free safety spot, where Lawrence White moves on after finishing fourth on the team in tackles. Sophomore Kym-Mani King has played in 21 games over the last two seasons and may be able to step into a larger role, but ISU did bring in a fairly big-name transfer in Jaquan Amos. Amos made 107 tackles over the last two seasons with Villanova and also earned a reputation as a ball hawk. It's hard to think he would be an upgrade over White, but the production shouldn't drop off either.

With nine starters returning from a group that was particularly stout in 2020, Iowa State's defense has no reason not to be terrific this fall. Don't be surprised if coordinator Jon Heacock, who also followed Campbell from Toledo, becomes a name to watch in line for a promotion.

Special Teams: The placekicker position will be interesting to watch in 2021. Veteran Connor Assalley returns, but he was just okay in 2020, hitting 13 of 19 field goals. It wouldn't be surprising if he's overtaken by Fordham transplant Andrew Mevis, who was 27-38 in three seasons with the Rams. Mevis can also handle punting duties if needed, but senior Corey Dunn is the likely starter there.

Bottom Line: Iowa State enters 2021 with the highest expectations the program has ever had, and for good reason. There's legitimate All-American talent at multiple spots on both sides of the ball, plus plenty of experience and stability. The question is whether the Cyclones can truly take the next step and go from New Year's Six Bowl levels to a true CFB Playoff contender. In order to do so, they'll have to show an improved ability to avoid the off-weeks that have plagued the team in the past, when they've lost to less talented teams (like Louisiana last fall). Additionally, the return of the Cy-Hawk rivalry with Iowa raises the stakes, as Campbell is yet to beat the in-state rivals. This team has the chance to go down as the best in program history and while I still have them just a step below Oklahoma in the league, it wouldn't surprise me if they stay alive in the Playoff conversation deep into the fall and winter months.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (8-2 Big 12, Lose Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Breece Hall
Defensive MVP: LB Mike Rose
Breakout Player of the Year: S Jaquan Amos
Impact Freshman: WR Jaylin Noel

Recruiting Breakdown
Even with their recent success, Iowa State is never going to be a program that recruits at an elite level on the national stage. Campbell and his staff instead focus on guys who fit the culture and scheme they're looking to run, and the Class of 2021 reflects that. They did a great job recruiting the trenches, with offensive linemen Tyler Maro and defensive linemen Howard Brown leading the group. Brown in particular is a really fascinating prospect, as a former two-way player who played quarterback in high school, yet is currently a shade below 290 pounds. There is skill position talent coming in, namely athlete Eli Sanders and wide out Jaylin Noel. Sanders is best at tailback but could theoretically move around, while Noel caught some eyes during spring. 

Five-Year Trend

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.