1) Will Iowa State finally beat a ranked team this season?
Let's face it, the Cyclones are overdue for that "benchmark" victory. That's frankly the reason why the national preview magazines have overlooked Iowa State as a bit of a fluke the past two summers. No one knows this better than Dan McCarney. Look for ISU to finally shatter that glass ceiling on one of these three dates: Sept. 14 at Iowa (don't laugh, the Hawkeyes could be ranked going into that game); Sept. 28 vs. Nebraska (remember it was a one-point game heading into the fourth quarter the last time the Big Red ventured to Ames in 2000), or Nov 9 at Kansas State (the Wildcats could be looking ahead to next week's tussle with the Huskers).
2) Will Iowa State make it ‘one for the thumb' against Iowa?
As long as that #15 is wearing ketchup and mustard colors Iowa will remain winless against the Cyclones for a fifth straight season. Brief aside: it does amaze me how Iowa State has beaten Iowa four years in a row with a bunch of native sons the Hawkeyes were never interested in recruiting.
3) What is McCarney's chief concern heading into the season?
If you read my column earlier this week on the offensive line than you know why new position coach Marty Fine is burning the midnight oil. And it's not like his debut is a breather, either. Four new starters up front against the Seminoles doesn't bode well.
4) Is Seneca Wallace a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender?
No. The only chance Seneca has at the Heisman is if Iowa State upsets Florida State in the opener and then finishes no lower than second in the Big 12 North. Even then he'll barely merit an invite to New York for the ceremony. However, that doesn't mean the money being spent and the energy being used to garner Wallace publicity is a waste. Quite the contrary, somewhere out there – I know, hard to believe – is a high school player even better than Wallace who previously didn't know the Cyclones from Adam. All this attention on Wallace might cause that prospect to cast Iowa State in a different light. You can't put a price tag on that. Plus, Wallace is one helluva player.
5) What's the one game Iowa State fans shouldn't even bother watching?
You might want to schedule your Halloween party, raking of leaves, or Harvest Moon Dance around that Oct. 26 trip to Texas. The Longhorns have better personnel than even the Seminoles and I shudder at the thought of their tight end-like wide receivers matching up with a secondary whose median height is 5-8.
6) What will be the most thrilling game of the season?
Miami (Fla.) at Tennessee. Oh wait, I forgot I was writing for Cyclone Nation. I'm thinking fans at Jack Trice will more than get their money's worth on Sept. 28 against Nebraska and Oct. 12 against Texas Tech. Get your tickets now.
7) Who's the Cyclones' most underrated player?
The winner of the Mike Banks award could very well be cornerback Atif Austin, who quietly was an honorable mention All-Big 12 last season. Austin led ISU in pass breakups in 2001, and finished with 17 tackles in the final three games of the season on a defense that allowed only 11 points per game during that span. I'm a big Marc Timmons fan as well.
8) Who's the Cyclones' most overrated player?
It's tough to have an overrated player on a team that is so often overlooked like Iowa State. But it's time for Tyson Smith to emerge as the heir apparent to Reggie Hayward at rush end. Smith, whom I really enjoy interviewing whenever I get the chance, is far more athletically gifted than his modest totals of 58 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, and one sack from last season would attest. Smith looks bigger than a year ago, now he just has to play meaner. Here's hoping he makes me regret writing this right away come Saturday night.
9) Can Tony Yelk convert 55% of his field goal attempts this season?
Think about this for a second: If Yelk had just converted 10-of-18 field goal attempts (just 55%) last season instead of 8-for-18, Iowa State would've finished 9-3 and ranked for a second straight season. Missed kicks against Texas A&M and Alabama were frankly the difference in those games, and he has to improve this season. It's not a question of leg strength, but concentration and consistency. As far as predicting whether he can do it or not, I'm not even arrogant enough to believe I can get inside the mind of a kicker.
10) Does Iowa State have any realistic shot at beating Florida State?
Probably not, even though this Seminole team isn't as good as its predecessors. Nonetheless, there's still only a handful of Iowa State players that would make FSU's two-deep, in my layman's opinion. I'd put the Cyclones chances of pulling the upset at about 30%.
11) Other than Seneca Wallace, which Cyclones have the best chance at individual honors?
Lane Danielsen was an honorable mention all-league pick last season, so he's an obvious choice. Recent history has proven that being the starting running back at Iowa State is also worth mentioning, which means Michael Wagner's name belongs here. On defense, there's Jordan Carstens, the unit's best player, the aforementioned Austin and Timmons, and linebackers Matt Word and Jeremy Loyd. Regardless of his proclivity to yank field goals, Yelk does have a NFL punting leg.
12) Which Cyclones will have breakthrough seasons?
Casey Shelton should do a fine job at left tackle. The aforementioned Smith will become a force to be reckoned with. Look for JaMaine Billups to make some big plays at strong safety. There's several players at wide receiver, one of the team's strengths, who could make this list. Look for Brandon Brown to live up to his "bam-bam" nickname. Expect Anthony Forrest to anchor the secondary. And our very own Bill Seals tells me tight end Kenny Segin is also a player to keep your eye on.
13) Which newcomers will make an immediate impact?
It sure didn't take long for Nick Leaders to make an impression on the coaches at nose guard. McCarney has been raving about wide receiver Jon Davis since spring ball. Both of those players are from Nebraska, by the way. As is Stevie Hicks, who I'm guessing will redshirt. However, Brian Thompson will be a factor in the tailback rotation. Kory Pence won't have to wait long to shake the dust off along the offensive line after a two-year Mormon mission. One or both of the Smith brothers (Kyle & Korey) could also avoid a redshirt season. Shaheed Richardson will factor immediately at defensive end as well.
14) Which area will see the biggest improvement?
That's easy: the stadium. Props to Bruce V. The atmosphere at Jack Trice will improve significantly with the new bleachers, permanent lights, and snazzy scoreboard. Now it's just up to you to fill it.
15) Which of the former Iowa State assistant coaches who left during the offseason will experience the most success?
Bobby Elliott would've succeeded Hayden Fry at Iowa if he had not gotten sick, and as the new defensive coordinator at Kansas State he inherits a nasty defense led by linebacker Terry Pierce and tackle Tank Reese.
16) Which of the former Iowa State assistant coaches who left during the offseason will regret his decision the most?
I haven't spoken to Nick Quartaro since right before the Independence Bowl, so take this speculation with a grain of salt. But there is a reasonable chance Quartaro would be the offensive coordinator here this season had he not bolted for Kansas a few weeks prior to Steve Loney's announcement he was going to the Minnesota Vikings. Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but I don't think calling plays for Zach Dyer is quite the same as calling Seneca Wallace's number.
17) Which Cyclone talks the most trash?
My vote goes to wide receivers coach Mike Grant, who once told me he could beat me at EA Sports NCAA Football with any scrub team. Yo coach, look at me and then look at you. I got this way by sitting on my rump and playing that game into oblivion. You have no shot.
18) Who will win the Big 12?
I'll go with a rematch of last season's Big 12 Championship: Texas vs. Colorado. This time, Chris Simms only throws 5 interceptions and the Longhorns win.
19) Who will play in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title and win the Heisman Trophy?
Since the BCS began, a team from either the Big East or ACC has made the national title game. That means the winner of the Miami-Florida State game equals one half of the equation. I love Washington State, but don't quite have the guts to pull the trigger. So let's say Texas, who has more talent than the Carolina Panthers, takes on Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. As for the Heisman, look out for Marshall QB Byron Leftwich. Leftwich will throw for a gazillion yards as the Thundering Herd finish as the only undefeated team in Division I-A.
20) Am I a Cyclone fan now?
Go Blue! Seriously, I have long been a fan of the Cyclone people, if not necessarily the team and school itself.
P.S…In case you were wondering, I'm predicting Iowa State finishes 7-6 and earns an invitation to play in the Tangerine Bowl on December 23rd.