It's 34 degrees here in Ames on this unusually warm Thursday in mid-December. Snow's been on the ground for a few weeks, and more is coming, but right now it feels like springtime.
That has nothing to do with the weather, but rather a sense of hope wafting out of the Bergstrom Football Complex. Memories of a 3-9 season have been swept away. The staff is back from its two-weeks-long winter recruiting period, from California to Florida, which saw the Cyclones pick up five verbal commitments (and two more if you count yesterday's batch, delivered on the first day of the dead period).
The Cyclones could be staring down a tough 2014 — the schedule is harsh — or they could be primed for a rebound. We won't know for some time. Of the legitimate reasons for optimism, No. 1 is this : Iowa State's offense will be much better. Count the weapons, and there are as many as Paul Rhoads has ever had in Ames.
I said on KXNO last week that Iowa State's offense should have been better than it was in 2013. The Cyclones averaged 25 points per game; only 33 FBS teams scored less. I held that sentiment throughout the season, an outsider dispatched to Ames to cover what I thought would be an intriguing offensive unit. Each week I waited for an outburst, and there were glimpses.
From the very first time I saw Quenton Bundrage, against Iowa, I knew the Cyclones had one of the best receivers in the conference. Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy, clearly, should have received more touches earlier in the season. E.J. Bibbs passed the eyeball test. A healthy and confident Sam Richardson, most of the beat writers agreed, is a top 5 quarterback in the Big 12. Grant Rohach closed the season out well.
All those good things aside, it was a mostly dysfunctional unit, the kind of eyesore you thought you left behind in high school. The pistol offense the Cyclones have adopted is no longer a gimmick; it's a very successful scheme run throughout college football, with tremendous benefits. The pistol takes the best of the shotgun — that the quarterback can survey the field without having an extensive drop-back — and of the traditional, under-center stuff — that the running back can get going downhill. It's a QB-friendly system and any of the four Iowa State scholarship quarterbacks, plus the incoming Darius Lee-Campbell, should be able to effectively serve as operator.
But that's next season. What about 2013? What went so horribly wrong?
So it was no surprise #FireMess made the rounds early and often and it was a foregone conclusion when Rhoads announced Messingham's dismissal the day after the season ended. Running backs coach Kenith Pope was fired as well.
An always-popular tactic is to paint an unsuccessful offensive coordinator as a nincompoop. That caricature would be wrong in Messingham's sake. The guy knows football. The lingering problem, however, was his inability to call plays depending on the ebbs and flows of a game. While Messingham told reporters he'd have about 12 scripted plays to begin a game, the reality was that number was closer to 20. Messingham would "overgameplan", and then get himself stuck, and then spin his tires with the same predetermined plays instead of improvise.
Flashes of brilliant play calling popped throughout the year: A 15-play, 92-yard drive against Texas, 11-plays, 54 yards against Oklahoma State, 14 plays, 69 yards against Oklahoma, to go with great late-game execution against Iowa and West Virginia.
But this is the problem, no? Sublime Iowa State drives were so far and few between, we can easily recall what we were doing when we saw one.
Alas, the Cyclones didn't try too hard establish the ground game as their offensive M.O. In the season opener, 58 percent of Iowa State's total plays were runs. The next week, 38 percent. Week after, 51. Throwing aside the outliers, it's clear the Cyclones too often hovered in the 50-60 area when a true recipe for success might have been 70 percent or more. Little good happened when the team took to the air.
By the end of the year, Richardson's discouragement was evident as he lost practice snaps and staff favor to a redshirt freshman in Rohach. How he responds this spring is perhaps the biggest storyline moving forward.
The redshirt sophomore was burdened with a lot of responsibility but the Cyclones needed Tad Ecby to continue his progress, and that never happened after a hot start, and Dondre Daley had glimpses but wasn't really a factor.
The best offensive line going forward could be a Gannon-Burton-Farniok-Omoile/Taiese-Dagel starting five.
In my opinion, the jury is still out on Jamison Lalk, while I was slightly underwhelmed by Farniok, who I had heard lots of good things about. A good player with a steadying presence, but not an impact blocker down the line of scrimmage. Gannon might be the most valuable player on the roster in 2014.