AMES (AP) — Even Iowa State knows that it probably won’t win the Big 12 this year.
The Cyclones just want to win a bowl game.
Iowa State went to three bowls in its first four years under coach Paul Rhoads. But the Cyclones fell apart last season, losing seven straight Big 12 games and finishing 3-9 — by far their worst mark for Rhoads.
Iowa State has predictably been picked to finish ninth in the 10-team league, ahead of only Kansas. But Rhoads has set the bar at a postseason victory, which the Cyclones have achieved just once under Rhoads and three times in school history.
“It’s an expectation that I place on our program on a yearly basis, and you don’t back off that,” Rhoads said. “I don’t think there is a lot of people (in the media) that think that’s possible. But that’s OK. We’re working every day to get there.”
There are some reasons to believe that the Cyclones can be better than most people think.
They’ve brought in Mark Mangino, one of the brightest offensive minds in Big 12 history, to revamp an attack that was held to 21 points or less six times last season. The former Kansas coach and Oklahoma offensive coordinator will have the luxury of using a returning starter at every spot if he chooses. Whoever starts at quarterback should have plenty of options in the passing game.
But Iowa State will enter the season with major question marks on defense, which was shredded for 39.6 points a game in league games a year ago.
Here are five of the biggest story lines for the Cyclones entering 2014.
QB CAROUSEL: Iowa State has listed three quarterbacks; Grant Rohach, Sam Richardson and Joel Lanning, as potential starters. But the competition will likely come down to Rohach and Richardson, and most expect Rohach to
start when the Cyclones open against North Dakota State on Aug. 30. Rohach was 40 of 59 passing with six TDs in the last two games of 2013, though he faced two of the league’s worst defenses in Kansas and West Virginia. Richardson opened last season as the starter, but injuries and poor offensive line play limited his progress. “It’s about making smart decisions and taking shots when shots need to be taken and taking care of the ball,” Rohach said.
PASSING GAME: The Cyclones have two of the better pass catchers in the Big 12 in tight end E.J. Bibbs, the only Iowa State player to be named preseason first-team All-Big 12 by the media, and wide receiver Quenton Bundrage. Iowa State also expects big things out of speedy senior Jarvis West in both the passing and return game, and incoming freshman receiver Allen Lazard is one of the biggest recruits in school history.
FRONT SEVEN: The progress of Iowa State’s defensive front seven could determine whether it can reach a bowl game or not. Seniors Cory Morrissey and Brandon Jensen are expected to anchor an inexperienced defensive line, and sophomore Luke Knott should be a bright spot at linebacker if he can stay healthy.
SECONDARY: Iowa State’s coaching staff is high on sophomore cornerback Nigel Tribune, who should start alongside Sam E. Richardson. But the Cyclones will have a pair of new starters at safety, with T.J. Mutcherson expected to be the guy at strong safety and redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya slotted as the favorite at free safety.
SCHEDULE: The round-robin scheduling of the Big 12 typically leaves Iowa State with one of the nation’s toughest schedules — and this year’s slate is a doozy. North Dakota State has won three straight national titles, and the Cyclones host Kansas State in the second week of the season before playing at Iowa, an early favorite in the Big Ten West. But Rhoads is at least pleased with the spacing of Iowa State’s byes, which come in mid-September, late October and mid-November.