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October 28, 2013

Ride it out and make the adjustments

The margin for Iowa State football is slim.

Whether that is margin for error, margin for misfortune, margin for exhaustion or margin for distraction, it's slim. For Iowa State, hard work and good luck converging simultaneously will get you a minor bowl game. It has happened 12 times for Iowa State in the 80 or so years since bowl games really took hold in the 1930s.

Eight of those occasions have been since 2000 and six of those bowl seasons have to be attributed to the proliferation of bowl games in the modern era. Only the 8-3 and 7-4 teams of 2000 and 2001 would have been in contention for bowl invitations as recently as the 1990s. Since 2000, Iowa State hasn't necessarily been jumping a lot higher than it did in a number of pre-2000 seasons that didn't result in bowl bids. But without question, the bar is lower.

So when it's all going good, ISU can clear that lower bar and treat its fans to trips to Boise or Shreveport or Houston or Tempe or New York or Memphis. Good trips, fun trips, better trips than Cyclone fans got to enjoy while wandering in the football desert up until 1970 and between 1979 and 1999. But the best of times have only been so good.

You can argue until you're blue in the face that it won't stay that way forever and I can't say you're wrong. That is a matter of hopeful opinion and it is neither wrong or right. But for me, the documented history trumps the speculated future. Iowa State's station in college football has always been one thing and there is nothing but wishful thinking to suggest it will ever change.

The point being, when your peaks are only modestly high, your valleys are going to be correspondingly low. Where this traditional powerhouse school might peak at 10-2 or 11-1 or 12-0, it valleys at 7-5 or 6-6 or 5-7. So it's only natural that a school that peaks at 7-5, 6-6 or 5-7 is going to valley at 1-11, 2-10 or 3-9. Anything else would be illogical. When most things are going your way and that enables you to win six or seven or eight games, that number is going to be half as much or less when most things aren't going your way.

Most things aren't going Iowa State's way this year. It was going to have a young roster no matter what after having a sizeable senior class in 2012 and not having strong senior and junior classes coming up. The current fifth-year seniors were recruited in the "scramble" year of 2009 when Paul Rhoads and staff first took the job in December. Your number of misses is going to be higher in that situation no matter what is said on signing day.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, when talking about the first "full" recruiting year of a new staff. That's because recruiting now starts with juniors and sophomores. In the 2010 recruiting class, Iowa State only started recruiting those prospects as seniors. That means there will be less of them to choose from and a smaller window for evaluation. On circumstances alone, that class should be better than the one that preceded it but not as good as those that followed. And that is a fair and accurate assessment of ISU's 2010 recruiting class.

Could more junior college players have been signed in subsequent years to fill the holes left by recruiting attrition and misses from '09 and '10? Yes. Should that have been done? Can't be said for sure. Because junior college recruiting has a little higher risk factor and tough competition for the mid-year graduates and 3-to-play-2 prospects that are of the highest value and lesser risk. Maybe ISU should have gone after more JUCO guys the past couple of years. But there is no guarantee that would have been successful.

Having a young team doesn't just happen randomly. You're not young like you would be hit by lightning. You're young because your senior and junior classes are lower in numbers, talent, or both. That goes back to recruiting, but as explained above, it can't be written off to simply not getting the job done in recruiting. There are legitimate reasons why Iowa State's current fourth- and fifth-year players, collectively, are lacking in numbers and ability.

But let's not write it all off to those circumstances. Iowa State has not recruited some position groups well. Defensive tackle and linebacker come to mind first. That's the heart of a defense and the Cyclones are not good up the middle on defense. It has missed on too many linebackers and it has not signed enough true defensive tackles. You can only miss on so many linebackers and not get stung. And you can only manufacture your own defensive tackles from walk-on and lightly recruited defensive ends so much.

Starting off young and then having a higher number of injuries than normal - plus an unusually high concentration of injuries in one position group - compounds the problem. Iowa State had managed to traverse Rhoads' first four seasons with relatively good health. It was one of the things that mostly went right to allow the Cyclones to get to 6-6 three times in four years and narrowly miss doing it in the other season. But this year's team has had more injuries, and the offensive line in particular has been hit hard.

Coming off last season, a 2013 starting offensive line of Tom Farniok at center, Shaban Dika and Ethan Tuftee at guards and Jacob Gannon and Kyle Lichtenberg at tackles would have been the projected best bet. Obviously, Iowa State has never come close to starting that line-up with any of the seven offensive line combinations it has started in as many games. The net result is that the Cyclones have started a bunch of offensive linemen who are not ready to be starters.

You want a good offensive line, do this: lock them in the weight room for three years and let them out when they become juniors. Do the same thing year after year. Offensive line is a man's job and fourth- and fifth-year players are the men needed to do it. Building a deep offensive line pipeline where you don't even see guys until they are fourth-year juniors is the method for success. ISU has good young O linemen with potential on the field this year. The problem is, they shouldn't be on the field yet.

So what's the solution? The knee-jerk answer for the majority is fans is to fire somebody: a coach or coaches. And you know what? That might be the solution. But there's no guarantee it is and it certainly is not going to be the one magic button to push and make everything okay again. Complex problems don't have easy solutions. That's what makes them complex. A major college football program has a lot of people involved from age 18 to age who-knows-what and there are a lot of moving parts that have to be in sync. Easy solutions to a 1-6 start are few and far between.

I'm personally not convinced that hitting the ejector seat on the offensive coordinator is the answer. But the muddled management plan for the offense was a red flag for me before the season even started. Coordinating by committee just seemed like a bad idea and it was fair to infer that was the plan for this year. Coaches Messingham, Sturdy and Klenakis all seemed to have some degree of offensive coordinating responsibility and power coming into the year. I just didn't like it as it was explained with the information we got.

Getting a straight answer to "what's the passing game coordinator?" has been a two-year exercise in futility. I could better explain "who let the dogs out" than I could explain what the passing game coordinator (Sturdy) is doing in that role specifically. Klenakis came in and helped install a new offense - the pistol - that he helped create at Nevada. But he's not the coordinator and Iowa State doesn't really run the pistol as an offense. It's more a part of the offense, a formation, a component to an ever increasingly cobbled together offensive philosophy. I could not begin to tell you what Iowa State's offensive identity is and I watch every game from start to finish…more than once if I can stand it.

Iowa State has an official offensive coordinator, an official passing coordinator who used to be an offensive coordinator and an offense creator and installer who also used to be an offensive coordinator. There's a certain too-many-chefs-in-the-kitchen quality to it and that's not even including Bill Bleil, a veteran coach who was Rhoads' influential right-hand man at the beginning of the current coaching era. What is his role now?

Iowa State has to continue to recruit better players and that becomes challenging with an ugly losing season albatross put around the program's neck IF that is in fact how 2013 turns out. We don't know yet that it will. The schedule IS easier the rest of the way. There IS a realistic opportunity to finish in ramping up fashion and that can be spun into a recruiting positive. Truth is, anything can be spun into a recruiting positive. Recruiting is sales. But some spinning is a whole lot tougher than other.

The Cyclones have to win more recruiting battles. They have to do better than they should; they have to beat schools that are a tier or two above them in the college football hierarchy. Getting guys you should get isn't enough. In terms of resources, tradition and location - the three most important situational facts in recruiting - Iowa State is 9th at best in the Big 12. It's in the bottom tier of AQ schools. It SHOULD get its fair share of guys away from tier mates like Indiana, Wake Forest, Kansas, Washington State and Vanderbilt. But it NEEDS to win virtually all those head-to-head battles. And it NEEDS to win battles with schools on the next tier up and the next tier after that.

Diamond-in-the-rough recruiting is easier. It's the path of least resistance. It's easy to convince yourself that you see something in a prospect that other coaching staffs don't see. Or that you've outworked them to find a guy they don't even know about. Or that you develop players better. And sometimes, it's true. But repeat after me fans: Jake Knott is the exception to the rule. He doesn't prove you can win with one-offer guys. He defies the reality that you can't.

If 65+ other AQ coaching staffs didn't think a guy was good enough, collectively they were probably right. That's over 600 peers who actively or passively said no thanks. How often are 600+ AQ coaches all going to be wrong about a prospect? And when it's a prospect with no other FBS offers, period, that jumps to 1200+. The conviction level on such a prospect has to be off the chart for every member of the coaching staff to even offer that prospect. Maybe that wasn't even true of Jake Knott. But it needs to be true in 2014 recruiting and beyond.

Iowa State had some mixture of 5-7 and 6-6 talent and experience in Rhoads' first four seasons. And it finished .500 in three of those years and almost did in the fourth. It has 5-7 to 6-6 talent on this year's team, but it has 3-9 truly-ready-to-play experience and depth. The ISU coaching staff has gotten its teams to play at and a little above their talent and experience level in the first four years. Never was it below. And that's what they are paid to do. On a stayed course, they will do it again. But even a stayed course requires constant steering and adjustments.

Rhoads will make the adjustments he believes will work, and that's what he is paid to do. Given time, a coach that is the right fit and wants to be at Iowa State will turn things around. Dan McCarney built the program to winning seasons and then turned it around after a 2-10 debacle in 2003. He would have turned it around again after 2006, but the clock had struck midnight, and it was what it was. Rhoads will turn it around because he's the right guy for the job and the university's commitment to being respectable and competitive in football is there. Do the work and in time, it will happen.

But fans need to be realistic about what the next peaks will be and they need to be prepared to hang on through the next valley. Enjoy the peaks for what they are and know that another valley is coming. Because the margin for Iowa State football is slim.


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