Those doubts didn't have much to do with Iowa State's roster at the time. In fact, many people though that the Cyclones (3-4, 1-2) would be a better team than a year ago, thanks to an experienced offensive line and running game, along with a senior quarterback and the potential for playmakers on defense.
But there was always one factor beyond the players' control: the schedule. A year after utilizing the so-called "easy" South rotation to earn a spot in the Insight Bowl, the rotation shifted, meaning that Iowa State swapped games against Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor for ones against Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech, When you add in non-conference games against Utah and rival Iowa, it became difficult to see where the Cyclones' wins were going to come from.
In consecutive weeks, the Cyclones have been smashed, giving up 68 points against the Utes and 52 to the Sooners. But they've also shown an ability to be dangerous, defeating Texas Tech 52-38.
Other than that 52-point outburst, the Cyclones have struggled offensively, averaging 15.4 points over their other six games. Like so many teams, Iowa State utilizes a no-huddle spread attack, spreading the defense largely to gash teams with a power running game when they can't put a high number of players in the box.
At the head of it all is senior Austen Arnaud, a hot-and-cold passer who runs like a fullback. At times, Arnaud appears to be matured from the past. But he's still one of the Big 12's worst rated passers, compelling 58.1 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Backup Jerome Tiller is even more inconsistent as a passer, though he's also a big-play threat in the running game thanks to his speed and elusiveness.
The Cyclones have a trio of good backs, led by senior Alexander Robinson. The (maybe) 5-foot-9 Robinson fits what Iowa State likes to do well, often hiding behind the massive Cyclone line until the last second before darting out into daylight. A 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, Robinson doesn't appear to be on that pace this year, though he's sill averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Part of the reason his numbers have dropped has been the development of a pair of freshmen backs. Another scat back type, Shontrelle Johnson is averaging 5.9 yards per carry while the 234-pound Jeff Woody is averaging 4.3 yards per rush. Between them, the three backs average 116 yards per game.
For the most part, the receivers are possession types, led by Jake Williams and Darius Darks. Darius Reynolds does supply a bit more of a big-play threat. But the star of the receiving group is Mackey candidate Collin Franklin, a load a 6-5 252. Franklin leads the team in catches with 31, 12 higher than the next highest player on the Cyclone team and 14 higher than Darks, the receiver with the most catches. His 36-yard catch is actually tied for the longest pass play by the Cyclones this year.
The offensive line is among the biggest in the Big 12, averaging 316 pounds per man. Only light weight right tackle Brayden Burris (290 pounds) weighs less than 305. The two best players are junior left tackle Kelechi Osemele (6-5 335) and senior center Ben Lamaak (6-4 320), both among the league's best at their positions.
The defense has probably struggled even more than the offense, though like the offense, the defense had one great effort, shutting out Northern Iowa. Even with the shutout, the defense is giving up 33 points per game.
Part of those problems come from up front, where the Cyclones are undersized. They've allowed 5.1 yards per rush and have only generated six sacks in seven games. Defensive end Rashawn Parker is probably the team's best pure pass rusher, but he doesn't have a single sack on the year. Defensive tackle Stephen Ruempolhamer leads Iowa State in both sacks (two) and the line in tackles for loss (4).
The linebackers are a typical Iowa State group, active and blue collar. The trio of starting sophomores give the Cyclones a group to be excited about. A.J. Klein and Jake Knott have combined for 146 stops, seven tackles for loss and six interceptions. Both are all over the field. Matt Morton is starting to break into the starting lineup, and while he lacks the size of Klein and Knott (they're 240 pounds, he's 207), he's built more for defending spread offenses and playing in space.
Senior safety David Sims is the best player in a secondary allowing 236 yards per game. Sims is a force in the run game and also reads pass well.
Iowa State hasn't gotten much from the punt return game, though Shontrelle Johnson is supplying 25.2 yards per kickoff return. Kicker Grant Mahoney has made 7-of-11 field goals, going 4-4 from inside 40 and making 3-of-5 attempts from 40-49. He's 0-2 from 50-plus. Freshman punter Kirby Van Der Kamp is averaging 45.3 yards per boot. Only three of his 34 punts have gone into the end zone while 11 have been downed inside the 20. He has 12 punts of 50 or more yards.
QB: 4 Austen Arnaud (6-3 230, Sr.)
RB: 32 Alexander Robinson (5-9 191, Sr.), OR 32 Jeff Woody (6-0 234, Fr.), OR 25 Shontrelle Johnson (5-9 182, Fr.)
WR: 7 Darius Reynolds (6-2 205, Jr.)
WR: 83 Jake Williams (6-2 203, Sr.)
WR: 6 Darius Darks (6-1 189, Jr.), OR 19 Josh Lenz (6-0 188, So.)
TE: 88 Collin Franklin (6-5 252, Sr.)
LT: 72 Kelechi Osemele (6-5 335, Jr.)
LG: 77 Alex Alvarez (6-2 305, Sr.)
C: 63 Ben Lamaak (6-4 320, Sr.)
RG: 75 Hayworth Hicks (6-3 330, Jr.)
RT: 79 Brayden Burris (6-6 290, So.)
LE: 48 Jacob Lattimer (6-2 245, Jr.)
DT: 85 Bailey Johnson (6-2 278, Sr.)
NG: 97 Stephen Ruempolhamer (6-3 280, Jr.)
RE: 29 Rashawn Parker (6-0 250, Sr.)
SAM: 39 Matt Morton (6-0 207, So.)
MLB: 47 A.J. Klein (6-1 240, So.)
WILL: 20 Jake Knott (6-2 240, So.)
LC: 22 Ter'Ran Benton (6-0 197, Jr.)
RC: 23 Leonard Johnson (5-10 195, Jr.)
SS: 1 David Sims (5-9 204, Sr.)
FS: 3 Zac Sandvig (5-10 193, Sr.), OR 37 Michael O'Connell (5-11 208, Sr.)
K: 21 Grant Mahoney (6-0 176, Jr.)
P: 13 Kirby Van Der Kamp (6-3 195, Fr.)
KR: 23 Johnson
PR: 19 Lenz
DS: 46 Dakota Zimmerman (6-1 228, Jr.)
H: 16 Daniel Kuehl (6-0 193, Sr.)