It was simple math, really: 2021 Fiesta Bowl champion Iowa State returned 19 starters from its Big 12 regular-season championship squad this year, including unanimous All-American Breece Hall and national award contenders Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar and Mike Rose.
As such, the preseason recognition — a No. 7 national ranking, with Hall, Kolar and Rose being named first team All-Americans — wasn’t just random, unbridled hype. The Cyclones had earned the attention under Matt Campbell, who — like his team — had become a media darling, as well as a darkhorse candidate for many vacant blue-blood college or even professional football coaching positions.
Talk of a potential Big 12 title and national playoff berth seemed natural. Big dreams ran rampant in the hyperbolic days of August, where hope springs eternal in college football. Cyclone players were healthy, ready and committed. Campbell could do no wrong; Iowa State supporters hung on his every word, and fans of other teams from across the country pictured him wearing a ballcap with a tightly-curled bill in their colors.
This sport can be temperamental and unpredictable, though. The narrow win over Northern Iowa in the season opener was somewhat concerning — though not entirely out of character for Campbell’s ISU squads, which tend to sputter a little early on. Another loss to rival Iowa — Campbell’s sixth in as many years — obviously didn’t sit well with some Cyclones, but everything was still in front of the team heading into the Big 12 portion of the campaign.
When Iowa State went 9-3 a year ago, four victories were by a touchdown or less. The script was flipped this fall, as the Cyclones dropped all four of their league decisions — at Baylor, at West Virginia, at Texas Tech and at Oklahoma — by a single possession.
Wednesday night’s 20-13 bowl loss to Clemson was, in many ways, a fitting end to a fickle season, which started in hopeful optimism and ended in complicated frustration. Short-handed Iowa State — taking the field without Hall, Rose, Isheem Young and Colin Newell — sputtered, struggled, fell behind by 17 points, then fought back and had the ball with a chance to tie in the closing minutes against a Tiger team that won their final six games to secure an 11th consecutive season of 10 victories or more.
Read that again, because it brings needed perspective to the conversation. Yes, the Cyclones finished a relatively-disappointing 7-6. Yes, some of Campbell’s luster has worn off in the eyes of national pundits. Yes, replacing a record-breaking senior class full of talent and leadership will be difficult.
Consider this, though: from 1979-2016 — a span of 38 seasons — Iowa State won seven or more games five times (2001, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2009). Campbell’s Cyclones have now reached that mark in five consecutive years. They’ve clinched five consecutive bowl bids and five straight winning records, after experiencing only eight of each, respectively, during the prior 38-year stretch.
I realize the timing of this sentiment may not be ideal, given both Wednesday’s outcome and the arc of the 2021 campaign in general. ISU backers were hungry for more after the success of a year ago. Close wasn’t going to be good enough.
I’m sure Campbell wants his players and fans to be disappointed today. Seven victories and a competitive bowl appearance against a modern-day powerhouse program used to be a dream scenario in Ames. Now it’s a baseline.
Welcome to the world of lofty expectations.
The opportunity was there for Iowa State to advance its brand in 2021. The Cyclones got a taste of the good life a year ago and were maybe a little ahead of reality. They aren’t quite there yet. But that doesn’t mean the program fades into oblivion now under Campbell. All of the pieces to sustain are in place. Clearing the next hurdle of relevance is much more realistic today than it was during the early stages of his tenure. Tuesday night — and this season in general — did more to support that idea than defeat it.
Hall, Purdy, Rose, Kolar and the other departing Cyclones would be the first to tell you they don’t want to be remembered as the best to ever do it at Iowa State. They’d rather be the introductory group of the Campbell era than legends frozen in time.
The pressure is on Campbell — a year wiser and challenged some by the turn this season took — to bridge that gap. And it’s a good pressure to have. Iowa State didn’t disappear in 2021. In many ways, the Cyclones actually found new ways to prove they aren’t going away.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt