The least you should know about the 2011 Cyclones. Part of Big 12 Week.
• First, something nice. Nobody starts out gunning for the title of "Best 5-7 Team in America." But if you happen to be 5-7 — and especially if you happen to be the kind of program that's accustomed to being 5-7 — you can do a lot worse than Iowa State in 2010: The Cyclones took out a pair of bowl teams (Northern Illinois and Texas Tech) by double digits, stunned Texas in Austin, came up one crazy fake kick short of upsetting Nebraska for the second year in a row and still had a chance to sneak into a bowl game in the season finale.
• Now, the reality. On the other hand, the Cyclones were also blown out by rival Iowa, 35-7, and whipped in November by both lame-duck Colorado (34-14) and Missouri (14-0) with the postseason within their grasp, leaving coach Rhoades' second season looking like a sideways step at best on the heels of his solid, 7-6 debut in 2009. With the addition of a ninth conference game to the Big 12 slate and Iowa and UConn waiting outside the conference, the overall talent level is too far behind the curve to forge a bowl bid from a schedule that features a single layup (Northern Iowa) and a lot of mismatches.
That gap may be any wider this time around, but it is greener. Quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson weren't just the biggest names on the offense for three years; statistically, they've been virtually the only names. Between Arnaud's arm and Robinson's legs, the pair accounted for 84 percent of the Cyclones' total offense as sophomores in 2008, nearly 80 percent in 2009 and 77 percent last year. The simultaneous exit of the team's top two receivers leaves the offense totally bereft of proven playmakers, and down an All-Big 12 center, to boot.
That's not to suggest the departing seniors left a very high bar to clear — the Cyclones were next-to-last in the league in total and scoring offense, after finishing dead last in scoring in 2009 — only that no one's ever seen the new kids jump.
• You got three, you really got none. Rhoads says he wants to name a starting quarterback by the end of this week, but the three-way race that's consumed the spring and summer remains wide open as it hits the stretch run. Junior Jerome Tiller is the only candidate who's taken a snap at ISU; redshirt freshman Jared Barnett reportedly looked the best in the only practice open to the media. But the fan favorite still appears to be splendidly-named juco transfer Steele Jantz (below), a former walk-on at Hawaii who broke out last year at the City College of San Francisco in his first full season as a quarterback at any level.
It may be a longshot, but a guy like Jantz — a late bloomer with good size, respectable wheels and crazy numbers in a situation where even his juco coaches were apparently counting on another guy to beat him out for the job — is about as good a chance as the Cyclones have of finding the offensive star they've so sorely lacked since Seneca Wallace graced the depth chart almost a decade ago. With an above average quarterback, there's always enough competent skill talent to get something done offensively, which ISU clearly has not in coordinator Tom Herman's first two years.
• To have and have Knott. The Cyclones were typically bad against the run in 2010 (technically, they were bad at everything, with the possible exception of net punting), but at least found a pair of cornfed mainstays in linebackers Jake Trott and A.J. Klein, first-year starters who combined for more total tackles (241) as sophomores than any other combo in the Big 12.
Those two aren't about to resurrect the moribund pass rush, but they should lead a charge up the rankings in all-purpose run defense: In general, the front seven rotation was extremely green last fall, and banged up; a healthier, more experienced group should offer slightly more resistance.