The year of 2013 was not a kind one for our Farmageddon counterparts. It started in uninspiring fashion with a loss to in-state FCS powerhouse Northern Iowa and a sloppy come-from-behind loss against just plain Iowa. After a second half throttling of Tulsa, whom they had lost to in the Liberty Bowl the previous year, an emotional loss against the Longhorns prompted Paul Rhoads to produce this gem of a post-game speech. They put up a fight in Lubbock, losing by a touchdown, and appeared to have progressed to something resembling an FBS team. But rather than break through to respectability, they decided to basically take the rest of the season off, until November 23rd. The Jayhawks were fresh off of their first Big 12 victory since the Cretaceous period and came out even flatter than usual in a 34-0 loss. Queue a West Virginia squad determined to forfeit a 31-7 lead, and Iowa State is on a two-game winning streak headed into 2014. Winning streaks are great and all, but that is tempered by the fact that they played the other two worst teams in the league and they still finished with a three and nine record.
Whether or not 2014 will be better depends largely on the offense, which brings the talents of Mark Mangino on board to help fix their ailments over the past couple seasons.
Multiple phases of incompetency have plagued the offense over the past few seasons. Inconsistent quarterback play, lack of a running attack, and head-scratching coaching decisions all afflicted the 'Clones last year and the year before. So on December 1, 2013, Paul Rhoads felt it was time to can the man responsible for this Mess(ingham, Courtney) 27 days shy of his two year hiring anniversary, leaving a vacant offensive coordinating position to fill. Recalling Mark Mangino's success doing so in those centuple-XL jackets at that school in Lawrence, Rhoads put together an alluring buffet of coach pickup lines and got that sucker to bite.
Though their rushing attack has lacked a punch in recent years, it was hardly the fault of the running back stable last year. Aaron Wimberly returns after a successful junior debut. His 567 yard season was cut short by injury, but sub-par line play and mind-numbing offensive coaching undoubtedly hindered his performance. He begins this season on the Hornung watch list which is given to the most versatile, high-level performer in major college football. Redshirt junior DeVondrick Nealy will fill in here and there to make a solid one-two punch as the every-down backs.
Many times last year, the offensive line did not sync in a way conducive to gaining offensive yards. Missed assignments, general clumsiness, and lack of cohesion made the line a weak spot on a shaky team. Things look quite a bit more promising this season, with more depth and experience all around. Tom Farniok, aka beef castle, returns as the ring leader of the group, having started every game since 2011. The honorable mention all-Big 12 selection from 2013 will be bookended by two tackles with an average stature of 6' 7.5" and 306 pounds. Combining for 23 starts, they have plenty of experience protecting the quarterback (whoever it may be in any given game) from pesky defensive ends like Ryan Mueller. The guards also return starts from last year, so familiarity with their neighbors will be greatly improved
In an on-going theme throughout Rhoads' tenure, this team is struggling to find any consistent quarterback play. That point was punctuated with a three-headed quarterback race coming out of spring practices. Since then, Joel Lanning was left behind during fall camp, and Sam Richardson stole the starting role (at least for now) from Grant Rohach. He was named the starter at the beginning of last year as well, but injury kept him off the field in some games and impatience from the coaches kept him on the bench in others. Rohach started most of the last half of the year and was anticipated to be the starter by many, but alas that is not the case. If Richardson is able to do something that no Cyclone quarterback has done since 2008 and start every game, he will have a plethora of talent to work with at the receiving position.
Quinton Bundrage will look to follow up a school single-season record-tying campaign by catching even more touchdowns than he did last year (nine). If he cannot build upon a stellar sophomore season, both Mangino and Rhoads have spoken on how preseason all Big 12 tight-end E.J. Bibbs will be heavily featured in this incarnation of the 'Clone offense. Those two should steal the show, but Jarvis West, Dondre Daly, and Tad Ecby all return double-digit receptions from last year. Throw in four-star recruit Allen Lazard and 6'5" South Florida transfer D'Vario Montgomery, this year's offensive M.O. will be "distribute and touchdowns will come."
Implementing a new offense only translates to instant success when the right pieces are in place. Luckily for Mangino, that is a certainly a possibility. Richardson didn't exactly run away with the starting job, but the newly implemented system doesn't need a game-breaker at quarterback. All he needs to do is make good decisions and get the ball into his playmakers' hands to have a successful season.
The transition will be an interesting one to watch, but for all the right reasons. With the addition of Mangino's simplistic, yet efficient offense and a plethora of playmakers in the ball-catching department, this side of the ball should be Iowa State's relative strength for the first time in Rhoads' tenure.
With an offense that is likely to score some points, the the Cyclones have a defense that is just as liable to give them up. Half of the line is gone, and nose guard Brandon Jensen took a few months off this winter before rejoining the team in late April. Corey Morrissey returns from an all-Big 12 honorable mention his junior year as the only solidified starter on the line. JUCO transfer Dale Pierson has impressed in camp and will most likely take over the other starting end spot, with a rotation of the aforementioned Jensen and lots of inexperience in the middle.
Immediately behind the line, the defense looks to be in slightly better shape. A unit that has been solid-to-great throughout Rhoads' and Wally Burnham's five years together returns three starters but lacks the all-conference caliber players of units past. Luke Knott, who returned in August from a season-ending hip injury sustained last year, should retain his starting position once he gets up to full speed. Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens have had plenty of game experience (37 and 34 career games) to make the strong and weak linebacker rotation solid, but the middle has only one letter-winner in the three deep. Redshirt freshman Alton Meeks has been charged with replacing Jeremiah George there, and would have to have one hell of a season to make up for his departure.
Secondary is a bit of a mixed bag. On the edges Iowa State has two returning starters, including a 2013 all-Big 12 honorable mention in Nigel Tribune, and three others who provide a respectable amount of game experience. The safety position, however, is an unknown commodity. Promising JUCO prospect Devron Moore was expected to run away with one of the spots vacated by two departed seniors, but then he did the ole "should I stay or should I go" and is no longer with the team. In his absence, a duo of redshirt freshmen named Kamari (what are the odds?) sit atop the two deep at free safety and redshirt sophomore T.J. Mutcherson appears to have beat out redshirt junior Kenneth Lynn. JUCO transfer Qujuan Floyd might get in some playing time during the season, but currently sits in third place for the free safety position.
Overall, the defense is young. An optimist would point out Rhoads' solid defensive track record and see promise for the future. A pessimist would look at the Big 12 this year and have thoughts of the horrible things offenses will do to those poor safeties. If the ends can generate a decent pass rush and linebackers can fill the running gaps, then the secondary can probably be trusted to hold down the fort for a while. However, the middle of the defense is so inexperienced, they might as well hold up gigantic arrows reading "ATTACK HERE."