AMES, Iowa (AP) — Fourth-year coach Matt Campbell has done a remarkable job making Iowa State respectable within the Big 12. And yet, the idea that the Cyclones could actually win the league remained implausible.
Iowa State isn't the favorite to take the conference crown, not with Oklahoma among the nation's best teams and the re-emergence of the Texas Longhorns. But the Cyclones, picked third in the preseason poll, have arguably the best defense in the league and a potential star on the rise in sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy.
The schedule also sets up in their favor. Iowa State (8-5 in 2018) has bye weeks ahead of games against rival Iowa and Oklahoma, and those Longhorns will visit Ames in mid-November.
"If we worried about what the expectations of our football program were outside of our walls the first three years, I think we would have crumbled really fast," Campbell said. "So what we've been able to do is handle our own expectations and (make) our own expectations way loftier than anything that could be said outside of our walls."
The Cyclones will start chasing their first 10-win season Aug. 31 against Northern Iowa.
Campbell's cupboard was almost completely bare of offensive linemen when he took over ahead of the 2016 season. Lines aren't rebuilt quickly, and it has taken three years for the Cyclones to get to the point where they feel comfortable there. Iowa State will return all five starters for the first time in five years — and four of them are seniors.
"It's an area for us, to be honest with you, that has been an Achilles heel," Campbell said. "There's no shortcut to rebuilding an offensive line. We're going to have to do it the hard way."
WHAT A DEFENSE
Iowa State returns eight starters from a defense that surrendered just 22.9 points per game in 2018. Four of the 11 players named to the preseason Big 12 first team defense were Cyclones: linemen Ray Lima and JaQuan Bailey, linebacker Marcel Spears and safety Greg Eisworth. Players like end Enyi Uwarzurike and linebacker Mike Rose have all-league potential as well.
"This year, we're going to try and come back and be a championship team," Rose said.
Purdy (16 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 2,250 yards passing in 2018) broke the NCAA record for passing efficiency as a true freshman, and the return of Tom Manning as offensive coordinator after a season with the Indianapolis Colts should only aid his development. But while much of Purdy's game is predicated upon his ability to scramble when the pocket breaks down, Iowa State needs him upright in 2019. Backup Re-al Mitchell, a redshirt freshman, has yet to throw a college pass.
The Cyclones lost two major playmakers in running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler, and replacing their production will be difficult. Five players, including four-star freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock, will compete for the carries that used to go to Montgomery. Iowa State will likely target receivers Deshaunte Jones and Tarique Milton more than ever in Butler's absence, and Arkansas transfer La'Michael Pettway could have a breakout season after catching 30 passes in 2018.
Iowa State beats Iowa for the first time since 2014, finishes the regular season at 9-3 and wins its bowl game to reach double-digit victories for the first time.