A lot of questions will be asked of Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads and the Cyclone players he has in tow with him at Big 12 Media Days in Dallas.
But all of those questions that will be asked can be boiled down into one: why will this season be different than last season for Iowa State? Because coming off a 3-9 year, all that matters is to avoid a repeat performance. While there is really only one question that needs to be asked at media days, there are several possible answers and here is a look at a few of them.
Starting with offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, Rhoads is banking on changes to the coaching staff to make 2014 different than 2013. Mangino has proven himself as both an offensive coordinator and as a head coach calling the offensive shots. But even the successful Mangino has needed time to be effective; his first Kansas team scored about 20 points per game and only managed a field goal in a 45-3 drubbing in Ames. His second Jayhawk team averaged nearly 30 points a game, hung 36 on Iowa State, and went to a bowl game.
Other new staff members include Mangino disciple Brandon Blaney coaching the offensive line and offspring Tommy Mangino coaching the wide receivers. Other new ISU assistants are Louis Ayeni tutoring running backs, Stan Eggen leading up the defensive end group and Maurice Linguist coaching the secondary. In addition, returning assistant Todd Sturdy is now the quarterbacks coach. The Iowa State assistant coaches as a group are 78 percent changed from a year ago with six new faces and one shift in assignment. Only Wally Burnham and Shane Burnham return from last year with the same duties.
Does different equal better? No. Only time will tell if the changes were improvements.
Iowa State had more than its fair share of injuries problems during the ill-fated 2013 season. Sure, it's easy to say there should be sufficient depth built up in year five of the Rhoads era to minimize the impact of those injuries and that it is a fair point. But the starters are still starters for a reason - they're better than their back ups - and no team gets better after suffering a spate of injuries.
The season after the injury bug bites is often the silver lining to suffering through such a season in the first place. Reserves are pressed into duty, perhaps sooner than they should be, and they gain value game day experience when the rounds are live. It may not look pretty when its happening but the potential is there for some delayed benefits. The Cyclone offensive line especially is a position group that could really benefit in 2014 from the injury woes of 2013.
Better in Close Games
Over the long haul, a program that is aspiring to be at least .500 each season needs to be at least .500 in the close games that is has. And the record in close ones will tend to even out over time, but it's often are disproportionately good or bad within the boundaries of one season.
When Iowa State was going bowling in 2009, 2010 and 2012, it was a combined 9-5 in games decided by one score (eight points) or less. In 2013, it was 1-5 in such games. Final score isn't the only way to measure close game records as some games end up being decided by more or less than one score and the final score doesn't really tell the whole story of how the game played out. But if you're going to pick one basic way to analyze the trends, final score is as good as any.
If Iowa State wants to win six or more games in a season, it has to be .500 or better in close games in that season. Rarely will it go the other way.
Iowa State has to be better at quarterback. With new position coach Sturdy in place and returning experienced competitors vying for the job, there is reason to believe improvement will be tangible and evident this fall.
Grant Rohach is the returning starter from the end of last season and stayed on the number one line through the spring to enter the fall atop the depth chart. But if Sam Richardson isn't injured in 2013 - more severely than was revealed during the year - maybe Rohach never ascends to number one. It's interesting conjecture and largely irrelevant at this point except for how it possibly impacts the position battle in 2014.
Neither will be better this fall if they don't improve their completion percentage and touchdowns to interception balance. Both Rohach and Richardson were under 60 percent for a completion rate last year in an offense that requires no worse than 60 at a bare minimum. And while great quarterbacks typically completed three or four or five touchdown passes for every interception they throw, Richardson had eleven TDs and seven picks and Rohach had eight throws for scores and seven throws to the other team.
Better offensive line play and better offensive scheme and play calling can help, but ultimately it's on the quarterbacks themselves to be at least one off season better than they were a year ago.
Ask all the questions you want, but only one question matters: why will this season be different than last season for Iowa State?