That new focus and direction was mapped out this spring when the Cyclones took the field with a roster dominated by redshirt freshmen and sophomores. A changing of the guard from last season's veteran-laden lineup has led to a renewed optimism for the program's future.
The question is this: Will ISU regain its postseason form of 2000-02, or is it still too early to expect a rebound from what figures to be a youth-dominated squad?
When the team is on offense
The verdict is out on exactly what type of offense Cotton will employ this season, but he has said it will be a combination of what Kansas State and Missouri have run in recent years. Although Cotton is new in town, look for the Cyclones to return to the floor plan that made them successful – a ground-based offense run by an athletic quarterback that can make plays in and out of the pocket.
A strength of this offense figures to be the athleticism and play-making ability of quarterbacks Bret Meyer and Austin Flynn, who will battle for the starting job in camp. Returning tailback Stevie Hicks will get a majority of the carries in a run-based attack, but true freshman Jason Scales will also make an impact after arriving in time for spring ball.
Inexperience could again be a weakness of this unit, as quarterback is not the only area where the Cyclones will be young. The offensive line and wide receiver will have an abundance of youth this fall as well.
ISU will be successful on offense if it can… make a huge turnaround up front, which will in turn give Cotton's offense a chance to move the ball and find success.
When the team is on defense
Defensive coordinator John Skladany will continue to employ a 4-3 attacking defense, which relies heavily on speed, athleticism and playmaking linebackers. The Cyclones have liked to blitz in past seasons and drop back into zone defenses. Fans have criticized ISU for being too much of a "bend but don't break" defense, but that approach has been to mask weaknesses.
Although this unit lost veterans like Jordan Carstens, JaMaine Billups and Marc Timmons, it could actually be even stronger this fall. Skladany is steadily upgrading his defensive speed through recent recruiting classes, and will have Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year Jason Berryman back at rush end. Plus, McCarney has said his defensive line could be the best since 2000 when the Cyclones won nine games.
In the back end, coaches enter fall camp with some uncertainty. Although Juco transfers Josh Hargis, Jerry Gair and LaMarcus Hicks come to Ames with impressive credentials, they also have yet to play Big 12 football and will be needed to step into the fray immediately.
ISU will be successful on defense if it can… Do two things: Get all of its questions answered in the secondary, and, unlike last fall when impact players dropped like flies, remain healthy all season.
The first order of business will be defending the home turf, so the Cyclones will need to fare well in Jack Trice Stadium against teams like Northern Illinois (Sept. 18), Texas A&M (Oct. 9), and Kansas (Oct. 30), to improve in the win-loss department. ISU's in-state clash with Iowa will take place in Iowa City on Sept. 11.