It has been 105 years since Iowa State last won a conference championship. In 1911 and 1912, the Cyclones went back to back in the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Iowa State, then known as Iowa Agricultural College, had its first homecoming that year.
It is a program which has all the usual disadvantages of those in a small Midwestern states with long flat roads and longer winters. The number of prospects that come out of Iowa each year is not large, and the Cyclones have to fight for those guys with Iowa and every other program that comes sniffing around when a humble Iowa boy starts to show The Right Stuff. The basketball program has been more successful over time, but Iowa State sports teams tend to come and go, alternating flourishes of excellence with periods of … rebuilding.
But now, as college football season heads into November, Iowa State is in contention for the Big 12 championship. The Cyclones are 4-1 in Big 12 play, which ties them for first with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU. But Iowa State has already beaten Oklahoma and TCU. It faces No. 11 Oklahoma State on Nov. 11 in a game that could easily decide the Big 12.
Iowa State has West Virginia (5-3) this week, while the Cowboys face Oklahoma (7-1). After that, Iowa State plays Baylor (0-8) and Kansas State (4-4) and OSU gets Kansas State and Kansas (1-7). Obviously, there’s a lot that could go wrong for Iowa State and Oklahoma State in all that. Baylor and Kansas don’t figure to cause any problems, but it’s not a stretch to imagine Kansas State winning either of those games, and K-State is the second-toughest team left on each those schedules.
But the fact remains that heading into the stretch run, Iowa State is in control of its own destiny as far as the Big 12 is concerned.
How has this happened?
Put most simply, Iowa State created a defense that could stop spread passing offenses, which is the challenge of our time. And it has the best turnover margin (+10) in the league.
The Cyclones are average, at best, on offense. They rank sixth in the Big 12 in scoring offense, eighth in total offense, and last in rushing offense. They do a good job of stopping the run, but the real difference is in the pass defense. Iowa State is second in the Big 12 in interceptions, fourth in sacks and third in pass defense efficiency. All together, the Cyclones have the Big 12’s No. 2 defense.
This has a lot to do with three key players — linebacker Joel Lanning, linebacker Marcel Spears, and defensive lineman JaQuan Bailey — but you wouldn’t call it a star-studded defense. Lanning, a former quarterback, and Spears are second and fourth in the league in tackles, respectively. Spears also has two of the team’s 10 interceptions. Bailey has 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. There are also the three interceptions from defensive back Kamari Cotton-Moya, but the point is nobody came into the year thinking of this as a loaded team.
In the preseason, Iowa State was picked to finish ninth in the league, and that was only because Kansas was available to be No. 10. Sure, there were veteran players, but they were veterans of teams that had gone 8-28 over the last three years. Besides, Iowa State is not the sort of program that’s ever going to be overrated in the preseason. The Cyclones are always going to have to prove it.
Beating No. 8 Oklahoma qualified as proof of Iowa State’s legitimacy, and following it up with a win over No. 4 TCU on Saturday seems to be evidence of something much more.
Senior quarterback Kyle Kempt, who had until the Oklahoma game thrown two passes in his whole career, threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns in that 38-31 win over the Sooners. He’s now 4-0, completing 67 percent of his passes, and has 859 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. The Cyclones still are not putting up big yardage totals, and Saturday’s win over TCU was Kempt’s least efficient game — but it was still a win over the No. 4 team in the country.
No. 11 Oklahoma State will be the biggest test of Iowa State’s defense yet. The Cowboys have the conference’s leading rusher, Justice Hill, and its leading passer, Mason Rudolph. Against the Big 12’s No. 1 defense, TCU, OSU put up 499 yards and 31 points in a loss.
Then again, there’s a reason the Cyclones have the turnover advantage they do. Their season will probably come down to a few bounces of the ball.
But don’t they all?