A year ago around State Fair time, Iowa State fans were giddy, when the Associated Press’ preseason college football rankings showed the Cyclones at No. 7.
“ISU matches highest national ranking ever,” read the Des Moines Register’s centerpiece headline.
A week earlier, Iowa State was No. 6 on the USA Today Coaches’ poll, one spot better than the program ever enjoyed in the weekly rankings.
This season, coach Matt Campbell’s team starts out unranked in both polls. Expected? Absolutely, coming off a 7-6 record with a roster that included four draft choices and three signed free agents who played well in their first preseason games.
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The point here is this: Never get too high, never get too low, and remember, outside anticipation and reality rarely collide.
Someone among The Register’s Iowa State focus group brought that up in a text last weekend. I recalled a Campbell quote I used in the 2021 ratings column.
“We realize the higher you go up the mountain, the more challenging that mountain can be, the harder it is to breathe, and the more precision you need the higher up you get,” Campbell said then.
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He put that well. He knows it’s now about sustaining. It’s about coaching Iowa State to a sixth bowl game in a row. He knows it’s about the positive development of players such as quarterback Hunter Dekkers, receivers Jaylin Noel and Greg Gaines III, and defensive backs Myles Purchase and Beau Freyler.
Accomplish all that and you’ve sustained — unless you define sustaining as something greater.
Occasionally a preseason top-10 team? Sure. But annually? Just two teams have been on each of the past 10 preseason rankings — Alabama and Ohio State. Those two plus Clemson and Oklahoma have been on the past seven. The last five? Add Georgia.
That’s pretty much college football’s blue bloods.
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My point is that sustaining even a top-five preseason ranking over the long haul isn’t easy. The idea is to build off success, which Iowa State has done. Five seasons in a row, the Cyclones have won at least seven games. They had won seven in just one of the previous seven seasons.
Iowa State is 39-25 overall the past five seasons. The Cyclones are 29-16 in the Big 12 during that time. They’ve played in five consecutive bowl games. You won’t find a better five-year run at the school than what happened between 2017-21.
“We really haven’t deviated too far off of what’s built Iowa State football from year one when we got to Iowa State to where we are today,” Campbell said last month. “We said at the beginning (in 2016) that we were going to build our program on trust. I know that’s a very simple word … that’s really hard to have and build. Trust in college football has to roll from player to player, player to coach, coach to coach, and coach back to player.
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“I think the loyalty and consistency of our players and our coaches to stay the course on that value system has really given us the ability to work through hard times and work through success equally with the same mentality and the same focus of trying to just become the best we can be.”
So for Iowa State to go from top 10 to out of the top 25 in just one year?
“If we would have ever listened to what people said about Iowa State in the preseason hype, we would have never gotten our program off the ground,” Campbell said. “For us, it’s always been really about us. Greatness is never overcoming others, it’s the ability to overcome yourself.
“We’ve always kind of just honed in on that model. We’ve really tried to find out where we need to continue to grow, why we’ve either taken steps back or taken steps forward, and how do we continue to push forward as a program, both individually and collectively.
“I don’t think we need to be motivated by what did or didn’t happen a year ago. I think we’re motivated on how do we continue to find success and push our program, and push ourselves forward.
“I really think that’s what we’ve rallied around since we’ve been back in January.”
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson embarked on his 50th year of writing sports for the Des Moines Register in December 2021. Reach him at email@example.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete.