In no particular order, here are some of the things I would love to see happen in the next 12 months, which would probably provide some excitement—and a little relief—for the Cyclone athletic programs…
1) An Iowa State running back gains 1,000 yards in the 2004 season. It seemed almost like a given for quite a while that the Cyclones, under Coach Dan McCarney, would always have a running back reach that mark. But, it will be three seasons ago (2001) when Ennis Haywood broke the 1,000-yard barrier for ISU.
I have talked to several Cyclone fans who are excited to talk about the quarterback situation…Bret Meyer vs. Austin Flynn…and who will the starter be? But, make no mistake about it. The key to Iowa State's success this fall will rest on the shoulders of its offensive line. Can Barney Cotton come in and get this group to pick up its game a few (or several) notches above the performance of 2003? It definitely won't be an easy task. But, there is no greater area of need, in my opinion.
To take the pressure off of a young QB (Meyer or Flynn), to control the ball offensively, to win battles of field position, to give its defense a regular break in order to keep its legs fresh and to finish games in the fourth quarter, Iowa State's offensive line is going to need to shine this fall.
A 1,000-yard rusher would be the ultimate indicator of a job well done.
2) Stevie Hicks reaches his "potential" for the Cyclones. Sure, he's only played one season in Ames. But, it SEEMS like we've been hearing about this guy for years. Obviously, nobody was thrilled with his numbers last season, but a tailback can't create his own holes. How many times was a defender able to make contact with Hicks in the backfield last season?
If the offensive line shows improvement under Coach Cotton, it will be very interesting to see how Hicks performs when the opportunities present themselves. Iowa State fans may be pleasantly surprised. And Hicks will undoubtedly be pushed by the competition for his spot by a handful of young backs, including Jason Scales.
3) No blowout losses. You've got to start somewhere and this would be another good indicator that the football program is on the right track. After suffering through defeats of 46, 31, 28, 45, 34, 29 and 38 points in the Big 12 last season, it would be GREAT to see the Cyclones remain competitive into the fourth quarter every time out in 2004.
Obviously, the schedule doesn't look as menacing as it did a year ago, with the likes of Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas off the board in 2004, but the Big 12 Conference is still loaded with some very good football teams. Can the Cyclones earn back some respect?
For those of you who believe these "monkeys" might not be off of Iowa State's back until the fall of 2005, here are a couple more that might be more reasonable to expect to see next winter and spring…
4) A Big 12 road victory in men's basketball. Coach Wayne Morgan did a wonderful job this season, in my opinion, especially in the last six weeks of the season. He tired of hearing comments about "the streak" on the road, but the fact is, the questions aren't going to go away until the streak is ended.
Iowa State picked up a very good road win at Florida State during the NIT this spring, which should help the returning players as they take to the road next season. But, two of the best signs to me at the end of this season were that the Cyclones were defending and rebounding much better than they had all season. If ISU can continue to defend and rebound well—and we'll all be expecting good guard play—then "the streak" should be just about out of steam.
5) A victory in the NCAA Tournament. We've all had a bad taste in our mouths since the loss to Michigan State in East Lansing…ummm, I mean, Auburn Hills in 2000. That taste didn't go away in 2001 with the loss to Hampton. And since then, Iowa State hasn't earned the right to "go dancing" in the greatest event in sports.
After watching this team continue to improve this season, I've got to believe it's a possibility to see the Cyclones knock somebody out in The Big Dance next spring.
Are some of the goals I've listed in this column unrealistic? Maybe. But, let's be honest…Phil Mickelson just won The Masters. That feat alone should tell us that anything is possible.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com and now publishes IowaPrepsToday.com. E-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)