Due to some contact/deadline snafus (probably my fault, I'm sure), our efforts to reach out to our fellow Big XII bloggers fell flat. Nonetheless, with TCU-Minnesota behind us and Iowa-Iowa State coming down the chute, let's find out what's new in the northern half of the Big XII empire!
As a reminder, Beyond the Empire is OTE's chance to get the pulse of the other P5 and G5 conferences: how do they feel about the Big Ten? What playmakers can we expect? Do they have score predictions for the matchups? You can find the interviews Jesse and I have done here:
Joining us for this wonderful journey through the world of Ames and the Great Plains is a good and rational Cyclones fan, Kevin, going by KFitzy87 at Wide Right Natty Lite, SBNation's Iowa State blog. (You hear that, Hawkeye fans of OTE? You be good hosts for a change.) Note that these questions went out before Minnesota-TCU and were originally supposed to have a couple more perspectives, but enjoy nonetheless!
1. Give us the quick'n'dirty on both sides of the ball. Iowa brings its same old, same old to the Cy-Hawk matchup every year and--forgive me--I'm not sure how the Cyclones keep finding a way to stymie Ferentz's Hawkeyes. Who does Sam (B.) Richardson have to sling the ball to this year, and how will Iowa State--which came in at 89th in the nation in 2014 at under 5.0 yards/play!--attack a solid if unspectacular Hawkeyes defense? On the other side of the ball, what do the 'Clones bring to the table? I'm seriously asking: this team was [am I using it right? OK.] literally the lowest-ranked total defense in the nation in 2014. Who's going to turn this defense around, and who will Hawkeye fans be cursing after September 12?
The personnel on the ISU offense has Cyclone fans quietly optimistic about that side of the ball. It all starts with quarterback Sam B. Richardson, who is one of seven returning players in the nation with at least 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. Though Richardson has produced on the stat sheet, there's one number that continues to haunt him heading into this season: zero conference wins as a starter. If Iowa State is going to return to a bowl game this year, that fact is going to have to be done away with via W's from the senior signal caller.
The ISU wide receivers are possibly one of the most underrated units in the nation. Quenton Bundrage, Allen Lazard and D'Vario Montgomery are three big frames for Richardson to target down the field, especially if he is given time to throw by an experienced offensive line.
Easily the weakest area of the Iowa State attack is the run game. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Brown and redshirt freshman Mike Warren will both tote the rock a bit, and one or both of them will have to step up, or opposing defenses will be able to key in on the passing game.
The Hawkeyes managed to hold ISU to 82 yards on the ground last year in Kinnick Stadium, which ended up being the fewest rushing yards the Cyclones could manage against any team on their schedule all year. So even if the new running backs start the season off with some growing pains, attacking Iowa through the air will probably be the first priority for Iowa State this year, anyway.
As for the Cyclone defense, there are a ton of question marks. The one player who will be the difference between notable improvement or continued ineptness is JUCO transfer Demond Tucker. Tucker was considered one of the top JUCO defensive linemen last year, and ISU will need him to live up to that billing to help plug holes in the run game and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The other notable player for Iowa State's D lines up at safety: Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Kamari Cotton-Moya. If he's able to stay healthy (knock on wood), he could end up being one of the best safeties to come through Ames.
The biggest news out of fall camp so far has been the possibility of running a 3-4 or even 3-3-5 defense, as opposed to the traditional Wally Burnham 4-3. At first glance, this is an interesting move considering the ISU linebackers are the thinnest group on the roster. The likely reason for the switch, however, will be to counter pass-heavy Big 12 opponents. When it comes to the Hawkeyes, though, my guess is we'll see more of the 4-3 to help slow down an Iowa rushing attack that has abused Cyclone defenses more often than not.
Either way, I'm hoping Demond Tucker turns into the next coming of Ndamukong Suh and becomes the player that Hawk fans curse during and after the Cy-Hawk game.
2. I have to know: how does Paul Rhoads do it? He is 29-46 at ISU, yet somehow the man is 3-3 against Iowa. Does he get the Cyclones up for this one like none other [warning: "Super Bowl" will be the commentariat's response], or does he really have Ferentz's number in terms of game-planning and decision-making? Give us your prediction here, and we won't hold it against you (we swear, we're not crossing our fingers behind our backs).
Super bowl jokes aside, this is a huge rivalry game for both teams, and the saying is that crazy shit happens when two rivals meet on the gridiron. Despite that, I don't think Rhoads holds the Iowa game in any higher regard than he holds the games against the Texas', Oklahomas and TCUs of the world.
In 2013, Mark Weisman ran for 145 yards on 35 carries, and Iowa State's defense couldn't do a damn thing about it. The Hawkeyes totaled a 218 yards on the ground that day. Fast forward to last year, and the Cyclones did a much better job of containing Weisman and improving their run defense, allowing only 129 rushing yards overall. It's hard to say if Ferentz's game plan was originally to use what worked so well the year prior, but it was clear that Rhoads and co. were more intent on daring Iowa to pass the ball as the game went on.
If I had to predict this year's game, I think will be another nail-biter. I'll make a very Iowa State-ish prediction and say the Hawks return the nut-punch on a last second field goal of their own in Jack Trice Stadium: 24-21 Iowa.
3. Especially in light of the OTE-WRNL Kerfuffle[s] of 2015 [ed. note: a simpler time, when only GF3 was trolling Big XII fans]: Any thoughts on the Big Ten-Big XII relationship? With Ohio State's eking out TCU for an inaugural spot in the CFP, how do you think the conferences stack up? As the Big Ten moves to a 9-game conference schedule in 2016, any frustration with the lack of a conference championship game in the Big XII? [Bonus question: If the B1G ever came knocking--a scenario which may be laughable at best because $$$--would ISU answer?]
I don't really have many thoughts on the relationship between the two conferences, but I think the B1G clearly has the best team in tOSU, while the Big 12 probably has more competition toward the top with Baylor, TCU, OU and OSU all having legitimate shots at winning the conference title. I'll be shocked if Ohio State gets dethroned by any other B1G team.
As a fan, I'd love to see the Big 12 add a conference championship game. More football, right? And no more of this "One True Champion" bullshit that likely contributed to the snub from the CFP committee. Settle it on the field and leave no questions unanswered (even if we're already doing a round-robin schedule).
If the B1G came knocking, we'd try to listen, but something would go wrong, because Iowa State (have you caught on that Iowa State can be both a noun, verb, adjective and adverb yet?). In the meantime, I think our spot in the Big 12 right now is great for the school, but it's going to take more than just facility improvements (we have a bowled-in south end zone now!) and great fan support to pull Cyclone football out of the perennial conference cellar. Lord knows, future realignment would be a hell of a lot easier to stomach if we had consistently decent football program.