Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 22 Iowa State

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska

No. 22 Iowa State

2018 record: 8-5 (6-3 Big 12)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense

Iowa State’s ascent under Matt Campbell

What Matt Campbell has done in three seasons at Iowa State has been very impressive. If you go through the history of the program — 126 seasons dating to 1892 — you’ll find 11 seasons with eight or more wins. Two of them are 2017 and 2018. Before that, it happened one time (9-3 in 2000) since 1978.

ISU went 3-9 in Campbell’s first season before turning it up a notch in Year 2. That season featured upsets of No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 TCU and a bowl win, ISU’s first since 2009.

But that momentum didn’t carry over into 2018 right away. ISU started 1-3 and struggled offensively, putting up a combined 44 points in the three losses. From there, Campbell inserted true freshman Brock Purdy, who started the year third on the depth chart, at quarterback. His play, coupled with a strong defense, sparked a five-game winning streak, including a 30-14 upset of No. 6 West Virginia that put ISU in the mix for a spot in the Big 12 title game.

The Big 12 title dream fell short with a loss to Texas, but finishing out a regular season by winning seven of eight games is nothing to sneeze at. That finish created expectations entering the 2019 season. Campbell thinks that says a lot about the program’s growth.

“If we worried about what the expectations of our football program were outside of our walls the first three years, I think we would have crumbled really fast,” Campbell said at Big 12 Media Days. “When I first got to Iowa State, all of the questions were what color uniforms are you wearing and what's your entrance song. People cared about stuff that really doesn't matter and now we're talking about a football team, we're asking football questions and we're concerned about what's really important.”

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell speaks during Big 12 Conference NCAA college football media day Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David Kent)
Matt Campbell is entering his fourth season at Iowa State. (AP Photo/David Kent)

Brock Purdy loses his safety valves

“We didn’t know anything about him. We certainly didn’t expect for him to get into the game.”

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy wasn’t the only one who felt that way when Purdy entered early in Iowa State’s Week 5 game in Stillwater. But Purdy, a three-star recruit from Arizona, came in and lit up the Cowboys for 318 yards passing, 84 yards rushing and five total touchdowns in a 48-42 win.

All of a sudden, the Cyclones had a quarterback.

Kyle Kempt, the former walk-on who engineered the 2017 upset of Oklahoma, began the season as the starter. An injury to Kempt and Zeb Noland’s ineffectiveness caused the ISU staff to give Purdy a chance. Purdy grabbed hold of the QB1 role and never relinquished it.

Purdy is a known commodity entering 2019 and will have the benefit of playing behind the same five offensive line starters. But his top two playmakers, RB David Montgomery (2,925 yards and 26 TDs in three seasons) and WR Hakeem Butler (110 career catches for 2,149 yards and 18 TDs), are gone.

While there’s no surefire next-in-line back to fill the void left by Montgomery (the preseason depth chart lists five co-starters), replacing Butler’s career 19.5 yards per catch may be tougher. Arkansas transfer La’Michael Pettway is a good addition and senior Deshaunte Jones is a proven commodity in the slot, but the threat of Butler taking it to the house on any play is one ISU will miss.

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A loaded front seven on defense

Coming off a year where it led the Big 12 in scoring defense, it’s quite a luxury for Iowa State to return eight starters, including seven of its top 10 tacklers. The front seven is especially strong.

Pass rusher JaQuan Bailey, soon to be the school’s all-time sacks leader, gets a lot of the attention. He had a team-leading 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks last fall. Ray Lima, a second-team all-Big 12 pick with Bailey, is the kind of space eater you want in the middle of a three-man front.

Bailey and Lima were two of the four ISU defenders to earn preseason all-Big 12 honors. Marcel Spears Jr., a senior linebacker who has 26 straight starts under his belt, was another. Spears will hold down the linebacking unit alongside Mike Rose, who emerged as one of the Big 12’s top freshmen in 2018.

The fourth preseason all-conference pick was safety Greg Eisworth, a junior college transfer. In his first year in Ames, he led ISU with 87 tackles. Eisworth is expected to move into a hybrid safety-linebacker role (AKA the “star” position) while the staff counts on some steps forward from starting corners Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young.

The fact that the staff moved Eisworth is a sign that there is confidence in the depth at safety. The addition of Rice graduate transfer Justin Bickham (34 games, 23 starts) was an under-the-radar move.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 28: Iowa State Cyclones DE JaQuan Bailey rushes the passer during game against the Washington State Cougars at the Valero Alamo Bowl on December 28, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
JaQuan Bailey needs one more sack to become Iowa State's all-time leader in the category. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Biggest game: Oklahoma State (Oct. 26)

With four of its first five games at home, Iowa State has a chance for a hot start before going on the road to play two Big 12 teams with new coaches: West Virginia and Texas Tech. If the Cyclones are somewhere in the 5-2 range, the Oct. 26 home game against Oklahoma State could decide whether they are in the mix for the Big 12 title. In the two weeks after, ISU travels to Oklahoma on Nov. 9 before hosting Texas on Nov. 16. That is the key stretch of the season.

Impact player

LB Mike Rose

Before receiving an offer from Iowa State, Rose was committed to Ball State and had just one other FBS offer (Air Force). Rose flipped to ISU in October of his senior year before quickly — and surprisingly — emerging as the starter at middle linebacker. Rose finished his freshman season with 75 tackles and nine tackles for loss. If he keeps progressing at this rate, he will be one of the Big 12’s top LBs in 2019.

Biggest question mark

From Paul Clark of “Iowa State has to replace both of its starting cornerbacks from a year ago in Brian Peavy and D'Andre Payne. Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young lead a group of talented but less experienced players that will be expected to fill the void. Opposing offenses looking at ISU's proven core up the middle of the field will likely look to attack the boundaries and go over the top to test the Cyclone CBs.”

Cyclone Report’s breakout player:

TE Charlie Kolar

Kolar started to make an impact in 2018 and should be even better this fall to give Iowa State its first bona fide receiving threat at the position since the tandem of Ernst Brun and EJ Bibbs circa 2012-14. Kolar emerged midway through last season and ended up a second-team All-Big 12 selection.

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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

EDGE JaQuan Bailey

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: Last year was one of the Cyclones’ best in recent years in terms of their NFL draft output. Montgomery (third round) and Butler (fourth) were the program’s two highest draft picks since 2012. Bailey has a chance to land right in that same range — or perhaps even higher — if the senior pass rusher can build on what he did last season.

Early in his career, Bailey was immature, out of shape and quite raw. But the flashes were always there, and his 2018 performance has changed his outlook. Now Bailey is regarded as a high-IQ, relentless edge rusher for one of the best units in college football.

Iowa State’s 3-3-5 defense returns a lot of talent, including DT Ray Lima, who will keep Bailey freed up to hunt down QBs. Scouts have been impressed with the school’s improved talent and performance and are showing up in Ames more frequently.

At 6-foot-2, Bailey lacks great length. But he has a strong frame at 255 pounds and is said to be chiseled into the best shape of his life entering this season.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Tarique Milton

In the spring, Milton moved from the slot to the outside “X” receiver position — the spot previously held down by Butler. Milton, listed at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, isn’t the physical beast that Butler was, but his speed makes him a viable option to make a big jump in 2019. He caught 34 passes for 417 yards and one score last fall and also served as the team’s top punt returner.

Win total projection (8): Push

Every time I run through Iowa State’s schedule, I come up with no more than eight wins. Other than Oklahoma, ISU has a pretty good draw in terms of road games, but there are just too many toss-up games to comfortably go over the number. This is a win total bet I’d avoid.

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