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2006 Season Preview: Iowa State

After Texas puts a beating on Rice in Houston, they?ll return to Austin to prep for the beginning of Big 12 play on September 23rd, when North division foe Iowa State will visit.

Because of the rotating schedule, the Horns haven?t seen the Cyclones up close since 2003, when they took care of Iowa State 40-19 in Ames. What can we expect from this year?s matchup?

A Day Late, A Dollar Short?

Iowa State should have won the North division of the Big 12 last year. How close were they? Consider that among their four conference losses, three were in overtime. The lone loss in regulation was against Baylor. Being a Cyclone fan last year must have been torturous: they spanked in-state rival Iowa 23-3, won at A&M 42-14 and against Colorado 30-16. Yet, with a chance to clinch the Big 12 North against Kansas, they collapsed and lost in overtime on a field goal, 24-21. Did I mention that they lost at home to Baylor?

This year?s squad returns quite a bit of the key talent from last year?s Jekyll & Hyde squad, but the schedule is among the toughest in the nation. Along with the visit to Austin that we?re about to discuss, the Cyclones face eight other teams that went to bowls last year. Their 2006 opponents? winning percentage from a year ago is .633, 2nd highest in the country. The Cyclones face each of the three toughest Big 12 South teams, drawing only Texas Tech at home - Texas and OU on the road. That?s not the recipe for a division title.

When Iowa State Has The Ball

Your Reputation Precedes You (But Not In A Good Way)

I keep hearing Stevie Hicks? name in discussions of the Big 12?s best running backs, usually right behind OU?s Peterson and Texas? Jamaal Charles. Unfortunately for Hicks, that may be a reflection of the lack of proven commodities at tailback in the Big 12 for 2006. A closer look at Hicks? numbers shows a heretofore average runner.

In three seasons in the Big 12, he?s never managed better than 3.9 yards per rush (2004), and he?s not used as a pass-catching option out of the backfield, either (31 career receptions). His 1,000 yard season as a sophomore came on 270 rushes. As is noted below, some of that may be a lack of solid blocking, but there?s not much in the way of numbers to suggest an elite runner.

It?s Not ALL Your Fault, Stevie

Of course, running backs require a certain amount of blocking to do their thing, and in fairness to Mr. Hicks, the blocking in Ames last season was dreadful. The team averaged a jaw-droppingly low 2.7 yards per rush, and conceded an equally astounding 39 sacks (most in Big 12).

There?s good news in here, though. Center Scott Stephenson was an AP All Big 12 selection last season and returns again in 2006. Right tackle Aaron Brant and left guard Seth Zehr also return in what many believe will be an improved line for the Cyclones.

Of course, improvement is relative, and they can?t do much worse, but if they can cut the number of sacks in half, while increasing the rushing averages by 50% or more, the offense should improve considerably.

And Now For The Good News

The outlook on offense is considerably brighter when we look at the passing game. With new quarterbacks starting virtually across the board in the Big 12, the Cyclones hold in their hand a relative Ace with returning junior Bret Meyer. As a sophomore, Meyer was solid, if a touch inconsistent, completing nearly 62% of his passes for 19 touchdowns against 10 picks.

Meyer still has room to improve, and he?s got the talent to throw to in returnees Todd Blythe and Austin Flynn. Blythe, for his part, may be the best unknown receiving talent in the country. As just a sophomore in 2005, he hauled in 51 catches for an even 1,000 yards (19.9 average), including nine scores. With Bomar now out at OU, the Meyer-Blythe combo stands head and shoulders above any other returning combo in the conference, and gives Iowa State reason to believe they can score. More importantly, if Meyer improves just a little bit, and Blythe maintains his excellence, the experience at offensive line should help the running game considerably. All told, the Cyclones return what may be the North division?s best offensive lineup.

The Great White Hope Of Ames.

When Texas Has The Ball

This Maaaay Just Be A Problem

One of Iowa State?s greatest strengths last season was its ability to stop the run. While Hicks and Co. weren?t doing much running the ball on offense, the defensive front seven were doing a tremendous job of limiting the opponents? ability to rush (3.0 yards per rush for the season). Unfortunately for Iowa State, three of the four key players in that unit are gone.

Linebacker Matt Robertson (team-leading 103 tackles) was suspended for the year for violating NCAA rules. Jason Berryman (11 tackles for loss) and Nick Leaders, meanwhile, have graduated. Only standout tackle Brent Curvey (6.5 sacks) returns, which spells trouble against a team like Texas.

The Horns are likely to try to pound the ball at Iowa State with heavy doses of Charles-Young-Melton. Iowa State?s strong front seven looks severely depleted this year, which means that Texas won?t have to take too many chances through the air.

We Could If We Wanted To, Though

The news gets worse for Iowa State when you consider that, despite Texas? likely not needing to throw the ball much? they probably will be able to if they want to. DeAndre Jackson, one of the Big 12?s top corners, returns, but the remaining ? of the Cyclone secondary are gone to graduation, and the replacements are both inexperienced and less talented. The standout Iowa State secondary of 2005, which intercepted an impressive 22 balls, is gutted, and the reinforcements aren?t likely to replicate their cover skills ? certainly not so early in the season.

Standout CB DeAndre Jackson may be lonely this year.

What?s Left, Then?

Lose That, Keep This

One of the most telling statistics of the Iowa State ?05 season was the turnover battle, in which they dominated their opponents to the tune of 35 takeaways against just 21 turnovers. Not surprisingly, 12 of their 21 giveaways and only 11 of the 35 takeaways occurred in their five losses.

If they can come anywhere close to replicating that kind of positive turnover ratio, they can use their talent on offense to put up some points and hang with the tougher opponents.

Iowa State Could Plausibly Win If: They win the turnover battle and the offense brings their A-game. Iowa State?s defense won?t be good enough to keep Texas from putting up 30+ points, so they?ll need some breaks with the turnovers and for Meyer-Hicks-Blythe to be at their best. Think Oklahoma State?s first half against Texas last year. (Or 2004, for that matter.)

Texas Could Plausibly Win If: They take care of the football. It?ll take some costly, probably points-producing, turnovers to let Iowa State hang around in this one. It could certainly happen, and the Cyclone offense is talented enough to put up a couple touchdowns on its own, so this one doesn?t quite go in the ?gimme? category.

Nonetheless, if Texas executes a solid, fundamental game plan, there?s no reason they won?t come out on top.