DALLAS — Iowa State is holding its team media day on Aug. 10, but those of us who couldn't wait any longer have ventured to the sparkling Omni Hotel, down the road from Dealy Plaza, to take our best shot at gathering some football headlines.
Here are five questions I'm looking for answers to.
Tough to Begin With
It will take a whale of a coaching job to keep this team motivated and inspired through the first half of the season. The schedule, in typical ISU fashion, is brutal. The Cyclones kick things off against three-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State University, face Iowa on the road and host a successful MAC program in Toledo.
But we've talked about that before. Let's hit on the Big 12. Its round robin, survival-of-the-fittest competition is the reason for its "One True Champion" slogan. Everybody plays everybody, but some teams still have easier schedules, based on byes and how the calendar shakes out.
We're about to get into the nuts and bolts of why ISU's conference schedule is so hard, but here's one quirky fact: The Cyclones have three byes during the Big 12 season, before Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. All three games are at home. But you know what? Both Baylor and Oklahoma have byes before they play Iowa State, too. So instead of catching a sleeping giant, the Cyclones instead face a rested, hungry giant. Twice.
The Sooners were picked to win the Big 12 by the media, so for this below chart we've assigned them the number 10, of 10 schools. Baylor, projected to finish second, has the number nine. Iowa State, supposed to finish second-to-last, has the number two. With these assigned numbers, we've tabulated strength of schedule in an easy-to-read manner: The bigger the number, the better the team.
There are a lot more big numbers at the beginning of this image.
Another metric: The average ranking of the first four teams on ISU's conference schedule and the last four, with Oklahoma a true divider at the halfway point on Nov. 1. As with the above number, the more highly-regarded teams have the higher number.
First half: 7.5.
Second half: 3.25.
So, if we round down, Iowa State is basically playing Texas four consecutive times to open the conference season. After a home contest against Oklahoma, the Cyclones get (basically) West Virginia four straight times to finish off the season.
Texas Tech (5)
So my question: How do you plan to navigate through that?
Jeff Woody Can't Come Anymore, So Who's Here?
Who's Not Here?
Well, a lot of guys aren't here, but I thought it was somewhat eye-opening that Quenton Bundrage didn't get an invite to Media Days after a nine-touchdown senior season. Perhaps it's that Bundrage is a junior. At any rate, it gives us an excuse to talk about the hot-and-cold talent, who's either a really good wide receiver or just the best wide receiver on a lousy offense.
It's somewhat amazing Bundrage posted the numbers he did in 2013 despite the quarterback troubles, and it could mean Bundrage is in store for a monster 2014, assuming the QB situation is at least a little better and new coordinator Mark Mangino handles a better grasp over the offense than Courtney Messingham.
But Bundrage is on notice: He's still got plenty of room to get better. Drops were an issue for him last season — granted, he was targeted about a dozen times per game — and he committed three more in the spring game. It's a legit issue, correctable through better concentration and a willingness to take a hit immediately after the catch. Bundrage has NFL talent and needs to be a focal point of the passing game, along with E.J. Bibbs, but there is work left to be done.
The Mangino Effect
Honestly, don't expect much on this front. The players haven't worked with Mangino at length since they were last interviewed following the spring game in April. The Cyclones kept their offense vanilla; QB Grant Rohach estimated they used less than 90 percent of what will be their future playbook.
None of the returning trifecta of quarterbacks — Rohach, Sam Richardson, Joel Lanning — were anything too special in the spring game, Trevor Hodge has been moved to safety, incoming frosh Darius Lee-Campbell might someday meet the same fate and the Cyclones didn't seriously pursue any QBs on the waiver wire, though they were a wee bit interested in Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel, who ended up at TCU. So Mangino's going to have to work with that he's got. Rohach hasn't scratched his ceiling yet and neither has Lanning. If Richardson can stay healthy, he's pretty darn good. But big if.
A priority of Mangino's focus will be getting his playmakers in space. The Cyclones are going to be creative with how they incorporate Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy into the passing game and there's a nice balance of between-the-hashes size (Bibbs, Allen Lazard) and pure speed and (Jarvis West, P.J. Harris) for the selected QB to work with. An offensive line that figures to be loads better will help, too.
What of the JUCOs?
We know a few things. Pasadena defensive end Dale Pierson isn't on campus yet. Pierson has completed his summer classes and is now waiting for his transcripts to be processed and approved. He'll compete for a starting job eventually this fall, but might arrive to Ames too late to make a dent in the two-deep by the season opener.
We also know that we don't know much about Devron Moore. The JUCO signee left school this spring and for a while appeared to be permanently off the team. He's supposed to return this fall, albeit as a non-scholarship player. Any contribution he makes is gravy at this point.
JUCO summer enrollees Qujuan Floyd, Terry Ayeni, Wendell Taiese and Trent Taylor are on campus, joining winter signees Jordan Harris and Gabe Luna. Much was expected of ISU's crop of seven JUCO signees in 2014, with early indications they could fill as many as four starting spots on defense, but right now fans need to tap the breaks. Harris has been good but is working on his conditioning and hasn't yet wrestled the starting job at mike 'backer away from Alton Meeks. Luna fits a role nicely as a backup end. Floyd ought to contribute plenty, but ISU liked what it saw this spring in young safeties Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson. Ayeni might have to redshirt this season after injuring his knee this summer — we'll learn the severity of it Tuesday. Taylor is a role player on passing situations until he adds more muscle. Taiese, a very intriguing offensive line prospect who lost a lot of weight from winter to summer, could figure into the rotation along the interior of the trenches.
Should be a good time. If big-time running back Devine Ozigbo commits to the Cyclones, Rhoads will wear a smile most of the day.