In just five seasons, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell has taken the Cyclones football program to its historical apex. Now the question entering the 2021 season is whether he can take it a bit further.
When William Hill Sportsbook released its win totals in June for the upcoming season, Iowa State came in at 9.5 -- a number that still stands at the time of this publishing. The hook is well-placed. In the nearly 130-year history of its program, dating back to 1892, the Cyclones have never won 10 games in a season and only won nine games thrice: 1906, 2000 ... and last year. And only the 1906 team did so without the help of the postseason.
Hitting the over at 10-plus wins -- and along with it, perhaps Iowa State's first conference championship in the modern era -- feels tantalizingly close for what was one of the hardest Power Five jobs in the country before Campbell arrived.
Put simply, if Campbell left Iowa State tomorrow, he'd do so as the school's best football coach ever.
His winning percentage (56%) is already far above the program's history before his arrival (42%). When he debuted in Ames in 2016, Iowa State enjoyed just one winning season in the previous decade. The entire 1990s were filled with losing seasons and a ceiling of four wins. Between coaches Earle Bruce in 1978 and and Dan McCarney in 2000, there was a 21-year gap in bowl appearances.
The history of Iowa State football isn't completely drab; there have been pockets of success. To be sure, Bruce and McCarney had their moments. Bruce led the Cyclones to three straight eight-win seasons before going to Ohio State. McCarney had a good run in the early 2000s with five seasons of seven or more wins before resigning in 2006. If you want to go all the way back, Iowa State's only two conference titles came in 1911 and 1912 under Clyde Williams in the early edition of what would be the Big 6 conference.
But sustained winning has been more elusive, especially in the modern era. Consider that only four coaches have been at ISU for longer than six seasons (Campbell is entering his sixth this year). While this is still a school that can claim legends like Pop Warner and Johnny Majors in its history books, their greatest successes came after their time in Ames, Iowa.
Campbell can change that pattern. He certainly has the team to do so.
The Cyclones had nine first-team All-Big 12 selections last year, eight of which (QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall, WR Xavier Hutchinson, TE Charlie Kolar, OL Colin Newell, DL Will McDonald, LB Mike Rose and DB Greg Eisworth) are returning. Swap out Purdy for OL Trevor Downing, and this year's preseason All-Big 12 team looks pretty much the same. Only Oklahoma has more preseason All-Big 12 selections at nine. And Rose, the 2020 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, has been tabbed in the preseason awards to repeat in 2021.
But it's not like Campbell and his staff have been out-recruiting the rest of the Big 12. Pretty much every class under Campbell has ranked in the middle of the Big 12 and somewhere between the 30s and 50s nationally, per 247Sports. Hall was a touted four-star prospect and the No. 2 player in Kansas in 2019, but Iowa State is largely signing three-star recruits and developing them into all-conference players. Ironically, it was Hall, one of the few true blue-chip players on the roster, who noted the Cyclones' "five-star culture vs. five-star players" after last year's 23-20 win over Texas in Austin.
It may have been a bit corny, but that didn't make Hall's comment any less true. Culture matters, and a comparison of 247Sports recruiting rankings vs. on-field performance by Max Olson of The Athletic shows the Cyclones are the most overachieving Power Five program over the last four seasons. (Iowa, for what it's worth, isn't far behind at No. 2.)
Why is that? A big reason is because of the remarkable continuity on Campbell's staff. More than half of Campbell's assistants been in Ames with him for all six years, and many arrived with him from Toledo. That's aided in development of a roster built by players that weren't thought of as highly by recruiting services.
That development hasn't paid off through the NFL draft, yet ... but it could. RB David Montgomery, taken by the Chicago Bears in the third round of the 2019 draft, remains Campbell's lone draft success. Hall and Eisworth have been the early frontrunners to generate at least some draft buzz for 2022. That can change. as Iowa State returns practically its entire group of upperclassmen from 2020 thanks to the NCAA's free year of eligibility.
Still, the chance to do something that's never been done at Iowa State is a worthy reason to return. Picked second in the preseason Big 12 media poll with four first-place votes, it's Arlington-or-bust for the Cyclones. And while beating Oklahoma in December remains a challenge, this team is as close as it's ever been to doing so.
The missing piece may be receiver Tarique Milton, who missed half of last season with injuries. The redshirt senior has been a big-play No. 2 and could be a necessary role player to keep up with the likes of Oklahoma. Or perhaps someone else steps up. Either way, Iowa State needs more explosiveness out of its passing game after finishing in the middle of the Big 12 pack in 2020 in quick air strikes of 30 yards or more.
But that's picking nits. There's not much separating Iowa State, a very good team, from being a great team. Without a doubt, Campbell has squeezed almost every ounce out of this group. The more fascinating question as the 2021 season approaches is whether he can get just a little more out of them ... to win 10 games for the first time in history ... to win a Big 12 title.
Not whether he leaves for another job afterwards.