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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 7 Iowa State out to prove 2020 wasn't just a dream

Mark Rosner
American-Statesman Correspondent
Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy pounds the field after scoring a touchdown against Oregon in the first half of their victory in the Fiesta Bowl last season. The Cyclones won their first-ever Big 12 regular-season championship last year.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 7 Iowa State

The Cyclones secured their first Big 12 regular-season championship, beat Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, and left evidence everywhere of a program on sturdy footing. They beat both Texas and Oklahoma in the regular season for the first time ever, Big 12 coach of the year Matt Campbell is still around and there are returning All-Americans on both sides of the ball. There's Breece Hall, whose 1,572 rushing yards led the country, and tight end Charlie Kolar, who deferred a shot at the NFL to resume his role as an imposing target for Brock Purdy, and don't forget linebacker Mike Rose, who led the Big 12 in tackles. Hall and Rose were the Big 12's offensive and defensive players of the year.

Iowa State was No. 24 in our preseason poll last year. The Cyclones finished 10th in the final CFP rankings and No. 9 in the AP and coaches polls.

About the Cyclones

2020: 9-3, 8-1 in the Big 12 — they won their first-ever regular-season conference championship, beat OU in the regular season but fell to the Sooners 27-21 in the title game. Iowa State beat Oregon 34-17 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Coach: Matt Campbell, 70-43 in nine seasons at Toledo and Iowa State (35-28 in five years with the Cyclones). He's a three-time Big 12 coach of the year.

Returning starters: 19 (10 offense, 9 defense)

Shoes to fill: DE JaQuan Bailey (Eagles, UFA); S Lawrence White (Buccaneers, UFA); TE Dylan Soehner (Saints, UFA); RB Kene Nwangwu (Vikings, 4th); WR Landen Akers (Rams, UFA)

Iowa State defensive back Greg Eisworth nearly intercepts a pass intended for Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette during their 2019 game in Ames, Iowa. The Hawkeyes won 18-17.

Catching up

Retention is a big theme around Ames. The lack of action in the draft — only one Cyclone was taken — was actually good news: several players who could have left for the NFL chose to come back this season. The biggest name is DB Greg Eisworth, one of only 11 players in Big 12 history to make first-team all-conference three times. (No one has ever done it four times.) Eisworth, Kolar and Rose likely would have been drafted; Hall, who was a sophomore last season, wasn't eligible to be drafted.

Returning leaders

Passing: Brock Purdy 243-365-2,750, 19/9 (led team), Hunter Dekkers 5-7-118, 1/0 (2nd)

Rushing: Breece Hall 279-1,572-21 (led team); QB Brock Purdy 87-382-5 (2nd)

Receiving: Xavier Hutchinson 64-771-4 (led team), TE Charlie Kolar 44-591-7 (2nd)

Tackles: LB Mike Rose 96 (led team), LB Jake Hummel 77 (2nd), LB O'Rien Vance (3rd)

Sacks: DE Will McDonald IV 10.5 (led team)

Interceptions: LB Mike Rose 5 (led team)

Returning all-conference

Offense: RB Breece Hall (offensive player of the year), WR Xavier Hutchinson (newcomer of the year), QB Brock Purdy (1st team), TE Charlie Kolar (1st), OL Colin Newell (1st), TE Chase Allen (2nd), OL Derek Schweiger (2nd), OL Darrell Simmons Jr. (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Mike Rose (defensive player of the year), DB Isheem Young (defensive co-freshman of the year), DE Will McDonald IV (1st), DB Greg Eisworth (1st), LB Jake Hummel (hon. mention), DB Anthony Johnson Jr. (hon. mention), DB Tayvonn Kyle (hon. mention), DT Isaiah Lee (hon. mention), DE Eyioma Uwazurike (hon. mention)

Special teams: RB Rory Walling (hon. mention)

Iowa State running back Reese Hall led the country in rushing last season and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. All five players who finished ahead of him were drafted.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Iowa State: The Cyclones navigated through the season relatively unscathed. They had what a team spokesman called "limited cases." No games were postponed or canceled. Nobody chose to opt out.

Purdy back for more: Purdy ranked 39th nationally last year in passing efficiency after throwing for 2,750 yards and 19 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 12 games. A year earlier, he ranked 20th with 3,982 yards, 27 touchdowns and nine picks in 13 games. His completion percentage was nearly identical both seasons (65.6 in 2019, 66.6 in 2020), but he threw 110 fewer passes last season in one less game, averaged 1.5 yards less per completion and produced eight fewer touchdowns.

Two to watch: The relatively small 2021 signing class (18 players) ranked 59th nationally by 247Sports' composite ratings. All 18 were three-star prospects. But the Cyclones won't have to rely on many new players since there are 19 returning starters. Two incoming freshmen who have a chance to play immediately, however, are WR Jaylin Noel and DL Howard Brown

2020 national stat rankings

Where Iowa State ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Cyclones ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 34th (2019 — 39th, +5 spots)

Scoring defense: 25th (T-50th, +25)

Total offense: 34th (27th, -7)

Total defense: 21st (45th, +24)

Passing: 50th (11th, -39)

Pass defense: 68th (72nd, +4)

Rushing: 38th (102nd, +64)

Rush defense: 8th (47th, +39)

Sacks: 51st (64th, +13)

Interceptions: 35th (113th, +78)

Red zone offense: 53rd (8th, -45)

Red zone defense: 113th (17th, -96)

Turnover margin: T-41st (T-86th, +45)

Time of possession: 14th (51st, +37)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati: Bearcats have risen to the Group of Five mountaintop

No. 7 Iowa State 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 6 team. Want a hint?

This school's last conference championship came in 1998.