Big 12: James Smith
2009 conference record: 3-5
Returning starters: Offense (8), Defense (4) P/K (1)
Top returners: RB Alexander Robinson, QB Austen Arnaud, DB David Sims, DB Leonard Johnson, WR Darius Darks, WR Darius Reynolds
Key losses: OL Reggie Stephens, LB Jesse Smith, DB James Smith, LB Fred Garrin, DE Christopher Lyle, WR Marquis Hamilton
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Alexander Robinson* (1,193 yards)
Passing: Austen Arnaud* (2,017 yards)
Receiving: Marquis Hamilton (606 yards)
Tackles: Jesse Smith (135)
Sacks: Christopher Lyle (5)
Interceptions: David Sims (5)
Three spring answers
1. All about the linebackers. Iowa State lost five linebackers to graduation from last year’s team. A.J. Klein, Jake Knott and juco transfer Matt Tau’fo’ou are the likely replacements. Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads says they’re still thinking and playing short of full speed, but their development pleased him in the spring.
2. Arnaud takes hold. Quarterback Austen Arnaud struggled for much of 2009, but Rhoads says the senior was the most improved player on the team in the spring. Sophomore Jerome Tiller played well enough in spot duty last season to push for playing time this season, but Arnaud’s performance in the spring likely postponed Tiller’s chances until next year.
3. Year Two. Last spring, Iowa State was on its third coach in four years. This year, the team has been able to more firmly grasp the concepts of Rhoads’ systems and try to build on the team’s 7-6 finish last season.
Three fall questions
1. Scheduled for a rough landing? Iowa State has one of the conference’s toughest schedules, and Rhoads believes his 2010 team could be better than last year’s and finish with a worse record. The Cyclones play Northern Illinois, Iowa and Utah in the non-conference, and have to play at Texas and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks later in the season.
2. Who’s catching the ball? The Cyclones lost Marquis Hamilton to graduation, and have a talented group of receivers, but how they’ll shake out remains to be seen. Darius Reynolds got off to a hot start in 2009, but a broken leg ended his season. Jake Williams, Darius Darks and Sedrick Johnson will also be options for Arnaud.
3. Sustainable defense? Iowa State ranked in the top half of the conference in scoring defense in 2009, but lost seven starters from the bowl-winning team. Iowa State could be improved in the passing game, but it won’t matter much if the defense can’t be at least almost as good as they were last season.
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads' emotion-laced locker room reaction to his team’s upset over Nebraska has been a YouTube staple with more than 224,000 hits as of Wednesday afternoon.
For fans of college football, Rhoads’ show of emotion was refreshing -- a throwback to the good ol’ days when coaches were worried more about bonding with their teams than their next television appearance or tee time.
Rhoads’ show of emotion was genuine. And in much the same way, the overachieving Cyclones and their bowl appearance in his first season was the feel-good story of the Big 12 this season.
When he arrived at the school last spring, Rhoads was so appalled by the team’s techniques that he ordered a compulsory lesson in tackling fundamentals for all team members.
The Cyclones employed a tough running game keyed by Alexander Robinson to serve as most of their offense. The defense struggled stopping opponents who passed and didn’t notch many sacks, but most certainly knew how to tackle. ISU ranked 27th nationally in turnover margin.
ISU’s 6-6 season record, in a way, was done with mirrors. The Cyclones beat only one team with a winning record and that Nebraska victory was fueled by eight turnovers. The six teams that ISU beat this season have a combined win-loss record of 29-42.
But considering the Cyclones haven’t gone bowling since 2005, not many Cyclone fans are complaining about their trip to the Insight Bowl later this month.
Offensive MVP: RB Alexander Robinson
Thought that new offensive coordinator Tom Herman would turn the Cyclones into a wild passing team were dispelled because of the emergence of Robinson, who ran for 1,058 yards and six touchdowns to rank third in rushing in the Big 12. Robinson’s numbers are even more impressive considering his missed nearly two full games because of injuries.
Defensive MVP: LB Jesse Smith
No player better epitomized the overachieving nature of the Cyclones’ plucky defense than the 6-foot, 234-pound senior who led the Big 12 in tackles (10.8 per game) and notched nine double-digit games this season. Smith’s performance against Nebraska -- 12 tackles, two tackles for losses, a forced fumble and the game-clinching interception -- earned him the Walter Camp National Player of the Week honors.
Turning point: Oct 24 at Nebraska
The Cyclones’ 9-7 victory at Nebraska ultimately earned them a bowl appearance. And it the process, the Cyclones forced eight turnovers to win in Lincoln for the first time since 1977. Iowa State showed grit by playing the game without Alexander Robinson and starting quarterback Austen Arnaud, breaking a 14-game road Big 12 losing streak. It showed that the Cyclones can compete with the Big 12 North Division’s best and overcome much adversity along the way.
The Cyclones will revel in their bowl trip to Tempe where they will hook up with old rival Minnesota. A win would be huge to enable the Cyclones to finish with a winning record. Robinson, Arnaud, Darius Darks all will be back for next season. But the defense loses seven starters including key producers Nate Frere, Jesse Smith and James Smith. And the schedule will get much tougher with nonconference games against Utah and Northern Illinois and a switch in Big 12 opponents to Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech from Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. It might be wise for the Cyclones and their fans to savor the bowl trip while they can.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are the Big 12's best stories today for your lunchtime edification.
- The Des Moines Register's Randy Peterson has a touching story about how Iowa State defensive back James Smith found his mother in Haiti this summer after not seeing her for the past 19 years.
- Joe Williams of the Orlando Sentinel catches up with Lache Seastrunk of Temple, Texas, one of the nation's top recruits who is in Paisley, Fla., for the Football University's Top Gun Camp. Among the schools Seastrunk is considering includes Baylor, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas and Texas A&M.
- Texas Tech could make millions by taking advantage of Lubbock's new "wet" laws by designating vendors for sales at football games at Jones AT&T Stadium, the Daily Torreador's Ben Jones reports.
- ESPN.com's JC Shurbutt reports that Oklahoma State snatched a recruiting commitment from heralded offensive line prospect Dan Koenig of Cape Coral, Fla. Koenig, whose two older brothers played for the Cowboys, picked OSU over Nebraska, Mississippi and Clemson.
- Dave Matter of the Columbia Tribune provides another interesting "Case of the Mondays" with particular interest in Missouri's upcoming practice schedule, five questions heading into Missouri's fall practice and his need for assistance in a Big 12 fantasy football team.
- The Big 12 is in danger of being lapped by the SEC in terms of its mega television deal, the Lincoln Journal-Star's Steve Sipple reports.
- Jake Vehyl of Athlonsports.com predicts that Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant will be among the Heisman finalists this season.
- The Baton Rouge Advocate's Randy Rosetta writes that LSU might be willing to play Big 12 schools Texas and Texas A&M in the future at facilities like Reliant Stadium in Houston and the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
- Paul Myerburg of the New York Times' "The Quad" blog ranks Texas Tech as the nation's No. 29 team.
- John Werner of Lindys.com writes about Robert Griffin's attempt to lead Baylor to its first bowl game since 1994.
- Big 12 foes have trouble deciding whether Colt McCoy or Sam Bradford is the better quarterback, the Tulsa World's John Hoover reports.
- Bob Devaney's omission in a recent Sporting News poll of history's top-50 coaches makes development of a Nebraska Football Hall of Fame at Memorial Stadium a priority, Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel writes.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma 31, Texas 24 -- I'm expecting one of the best Red River Rivalry matchups in a long time. Both 5-0 teams could win Saturday with the right breaks. Texas needs to dominate in the trenches, particularly with their defensive front against Oklahoma's star-studded offensive line. If they can get to Sam Bradford consistently, they'll keep a young, untested secondary from being hung out to dry. The Sooners also have been susceptible to big plays on special teams, another area where the Longhorns appear to have an edge. Colt McCoy is playing like one of the best players in the country, but Oklahoma simply has too many weapons for the Longhorns. Look for the Sooners to win this one late, maybe on another dramatic Bradford-led fourth-quarter drive, perhaps? Anybody for a Corny Dog on the midway later?
Texas Tech 52, Nebraska 20 -- The Cornhuskers are finally playing a road game and this one isn't coming at a good time. Coming off their worst home loss in more than 50 seasons, they have to face a sizzling offense that hung 70 points on them during the last trip to Lubbock four seasons ago. It won't be that one-sided this season, but things could get out of hand early. Nebraska must play more disciplined and try to pressure Graham Harrell for any hope of winning. Tech's huge offensive line will make that difficult to happen.
Kansas 42, Colorado 27 -- Todd Reesing and Co. were lucky to escape Ames last week with a victory, but I bet they learned their lesson. The running game showed some resiliency after Jake Sharp was inserted into the lineup. And the defense showed some fire after going into a blitzing frenzy in the second half. The Jayhawks should have a favorable matchup against a makeshift Colorado line that will be called to protect struggling Buffaloes quarterback Cody Hawkins. Look for the Jayhawks to claim their 13th straight home victory, pushing them into a big game at Oklahoma next week.
Missouri 51, Oklahoma State 38 -- Two interesting offensive philosophies will clash here. Oklahoma State prefers controlling the ball while Missouri's quick-strike, no-huddle attack ranks next-to-last nationally in time of possession. Oklahoma State has to find some kind of pass rush to keep Chase Daniel honest. The Cowboys have notched only five sacks this season, so it could be a difficult proposition. The difference in this one will be defense, as Missouri safety William Moore will be rounding into shape and ready to provide a couple of key plays. And Oklahoma State's defense doesn't have enough playmakers to keep up with Missouri's array of offensive weapons.
Texas A&M 27, Kansas State 24 -- What a difference 10 years has made. In 1998, this game was for the Big 12 championship and produced one of the greatest games in conference history. Now, it won't even be televised. The Aggies should have enough offense to pull a mild home upset, taking advantage of a rushing game that showed flashes last week. Kansas State's run defense still is struggling and the Aggies won't be a good team for them to play. Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane will mean the difference, although Josh Freeman and Brandon Banks will have their moments against a sputtering A&M secondary.
Baylor 31, Iowa State 28 -- Despite the expected last-place finishes for both teams, the matchup between Baylor's Robert Griffin and Iowa State's Austen Arnaud should be an entertaining battle of play-making quarterbacks. The Cyclones have been making a habit of forcing turnovers, even as they struggle to match up with most opponents. It could be even worse if starting free safety James Smith isn't ready to play. Look for Baylor's running game, keyed by Griffin and Jay Finley, to batter an Iowa State defense that ranks 93rd nationally against the run.
My predictions last week -- 6-0 (100 percent)
My predictions for the season -- 50-4 (92.6 percent)