at Ames • Nov. 12
Head Coach: Dan McCarney (11th season)
2004 Record: 7-5, 4-4 Big 12
The Cyclones return 17 starters and over three-fourths of their scholarship players from a team that was one of the youngest and the second-most improved squad in college football in 2004.
Iowa State went from 2-10 in 2003 to 7-5 last season, a remarkable turnaround for a team starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback. The improvement was also remarkable in light of the fact that 60 of Iowa State's 85 scholarship players were freshmen or sophomores. The Cyclones capped off the rebound by winning the Independence Bowl over Miami of Ohio University, just the second bowl win ever for Iowa State.
Dan McCarney, the reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year (coaches' vote), fully expects his 11th Iowa State team to go bowling for the fifth time in six years. And he's setting the bar even higher for a squad that was just inches away from beating Missouri in its final game and playing in the Big 12 Championship Game. In fact, in his post-bowl press conference last December, McCarney – normally very coy about addressing expectations at a school previously renown as a college football graveyard – wasted no time in discussing how his team "would be pretty good next year."
Bret Meyer, MVP of the Independence Bowl, returns for his sophomore year and second year as starting quarterback, and was outstanding all spring. He completed just 53 percent of his passes last year, but demonstrated improved accuracy and touch on the football this spring. He was also lethal running the option. Behind him is rough and rugged Stevie Hicks, who got the tough yards repeatedly last season on his way to 1,000-yards. ISU will go with more of a one-back offense as its base formation this year.
Two new weapons were added to the scheme, Juco All-American Walter Nickel at tight end and former quarterback Austin Flynn at wide receiver. Nickel gives ISU the speed over the middle it has lacked for years, while Flynn showed great hands and instincts with the position switch this spring. The former U.S. Army All-American is one of the more popular players with his teammates and fans. Of course, all eyes in August will be on Freshman All-American Todd Blythe, who tore his ACL in January during winter workouts. Both Blythe and McCarney vow he'll be ready for the season-opener against Illinois State on Sept. 3, and based on how I saw him moving freely in the spring, I think they're right about that.
The most improved area this spring was the offensive line, which began to come on late last season. This is where Barney Cotton's influence has been felt the most since he came over from Nebraska. The unit will get an added boost in the fall with the addition of Juco All-American Paul Fisher.
Defensively, this could be the best front seven ISU has had since the Earle Bruce era of the 1970s. Nick Leaders and Brent Curvey are impenetrable up the middle, while Shawn Moorehead is rapidly becoming a force at rush end. At linebacker the anchor is Tim Dobbins, last season's Big 12 Newcomer of the Year on defense.
ISU would like to sustain the aggressive scheme it deployed under coordinator John Skladany last season, but inexperience at cornerback might make them reconsider. The loss of Ellis Hobbs, whom McCarney called the best leader he's ever had at ISU, cannot be understated. Helping to offset that, however, is the return of senior safeties Stevie Paris and Nik Moser, one of the top pairs at the position in the league.
The schedule is title-friendly, with just one road game against a team that went bowling last season. The first big test is against archrival Iowa at home on Sept. 10. The top 10-rated Hawkeyes barely escaped last year's meeting in Iowa City. This is ISU's best shot at winning at Nebraska in more than 25 years, as well.
This team will be even better next year, but there is a real sense around Ames that the combination of the schedule and returning experience provides a window of opportunity rarely available to the Cyclones. That window of opportunity is an outright North Division title and an appearance in one of the Big 12's upper tier bowl games.
Buffalo Outlook: Iowa State has the talent and, heading into the season, the momentum, to win the division outright this fall. Ames could prove a tough road game for Colorado in the middle of a cold November. — Mark Collins