It's come down to a two-game season for Iowa State. The Cyclones are 5-5 with Big 12 battles remaining at Kansas and at home versus West Virginia. There's much at stake for ISU and both games are entirely winnable - and entirely losable. But it should be looked at as a welcome way to end the season because it's an honest way to end the season.
Simply put, if Iowa State can't win one of its last two games, then it's not a bowl worthy team. And the consequences will be that it won't be in a bowl. But if the Cyclones can win one of two, then they are bowl worthy and would go into the post-season as a great example of why 6-6 bowl eligibility is a good thing. A 6-6 ISU this year with its schedule - if it turns out that way - will be better a better team than a lot of 7-5 and 8-4 bowl teams of recent years.
And, of course, if Iowa State can win its last two and finish 7-5 on the season, the Cyclones should be rewarded with an even better bowl invitation. Assuming two BCS teams from the Big 12, Iowa State would have the inside track to the Holiday Bowl at 7-5. That would also put ISU at 4-5 on the season in the Big 12, a one-win improvement over the first three seasons of Paul Rhoads' tenure and a stated benchmark of wanted improvement by the coach himself.
There's a sense that Iowa State is on shaky legs right now, and that's a fair sense. It may or may not be true, but it's fair for fans and observers to feel that way. The loss of Jake Knott on the defensive side of the football has been tough to overcome in both tangible and intangible ways. ISU was borderline competitive against Oklahoma and really not at all at Texas. But no one should forget those are the two elite programs in the Big 12 and plenty of successful Cyclone seasons past included thumpings by conference elites.
Those games are rarely the games that define a season for Iowa State. It's the swing games against the KU's and the West Virginia's and TCU's and Texas Tech's that define a Cyclone season. The one game that "got away" from Iowa State so this year was the home loss to Texas Tech, a good but not great team that is 2-2 in its last four games and a couple of plays away from being 0-4.
But letting one swing game get away can be overcome. Even letting two get away could be overcome this season should Iowa State drop one of its last two games but win the other. Letting three get away cannot be overcome, nor should it be. The Cyclones will never have an easy road to anywhere playing in the Big 12, but they have a brutally honest opportunity the next two weeks to make their case for being bowl eligible and bowl worthy. And that's all you can ask.
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It's been a sad week with the loss of two former Iowa State football players, Trent Van Hoosen and John Arnaud. And for a guy of a certain age like myself, it's especially hard hitting to know they were contemporaries of mine, one a little bit older than me and the other a little bit younger. That really gets your attention - in a somewhat selfish way - because you know it could just as easily be you.
Van Hoosen was 46 and died unexpectedly from a blood clot. His son's inspirational performance in a high school game days later will be the stuff of local legend in Fishers, Indiana, for years to come. Van Hoosen played offensive line at ISU from 1985-89, his collegiate career overlapping mine for a couple of years. The Cyclones were 6-5 in 1986 and again in 1989, but six wins didn't get you to a bowl game back then, so those modestly successful seasons and the players who made them happen aren't remember as well as they perhaps should be.
Arnaud was 51 and died after a battle with cancer. His predatory playing style earned him a nickname - borne of a Saturday Night Live skit, of all things - that was good enough to stick for life: "Landshark." Arnaud was a hard-hitting defensive back for Iowa State from 1980 to 1982, years of unfilled potential for the Cyclones, through no fault of players like Arnaud. ISU would start fast and then falter, but not Arnaud. He was a constant from early September through late November no matter what else was going on around him.
When the United States Football League looked like it was going to be a serious spring and summer professional football league, Arnaud played on its first championship team - the 1983 Michigan Panthers - along with fellow ISU defensive back Ronnie Osborne. Arnaud played for the Panthers again in 1984 and then the Memphis Showboats in 1985. And, of course, his Cyclone legacy was enriched even more when son Austen played quarterback for Iowa State from 2006 to 2010.
My memories of Arnaud's playing days are vivid. His college years were my high school years, making me just young enough to still be very impressed by and a little bit in awe of Iowa State's best players and biggest names. Van Hoosen, not as much, because I was a little bit older and because my college and young adult years are mostly fuzzy all the way around - especially the weekends. But the record shows that both made their mark as Iowa State Cyclones.