AMES, Iowa (AP) — For the first time in a while, Iowa State will enter an opener that it's expected to win with ease.
The Cyclones (8-5 in 2017), fresh off one of the best seasons in school history, host South Dakota State of the FCS on Saturday in the first game of rising coach Matt Campbell's third year in charge.
Yes, the Jackrabbits won a school-record 11 games in 2017 and are ranked third in their subdivision entering the season. But after losing to the likes of Northern Iowa and North Dakota State in home openers in recent seasons, Iowa State appears to have graduated from the days when a highly-ranked, lower-tier opponent produced real consternation in Ames.
Of course, that didn't stop Campbell from making the Jackrabbits sound like the Crimson Tide this week.
"You look at them on film and you really watch the last two years of their product — and it's certainly been built over time — but it's a product that we hope we can get our program to. A sustained culture that's competing for championships," Campbell said.
Here are some of the points to consider as Iowa State get set for what it hopes is a tune-up for back-to-back games at Iowa and against Oklahoma.
KEMPT AND MONTGOMERY
Quarterback Kyle Kempt, an afterthought at best entering 2017, broke Iowa State's completion percentage mark at 66.3 a year ago and beat three ranked opponents in eight starts. But it's junior running back David Montgomery that SDSU should be most worried about. Montgomery had six games of at least 100 yards rushing with 36 receptions and 11 TDs last season — and he'll be running behind what should be a vastly-improved line. Iowa State lost some key pieces at wide receiver, but Hakeem Butler, Matt Eaton and Deshaunte Jones are both experienced and explosive.
South Dakota State is one of just four FCS programs with at least six straight playoff appearances, and its current No. 3 ranking is the best in school history. Quarterback Taryn Christion was a preseason All-MVFC first-team pick after passing for 3,515 yards, running for 500 more and racking up 44 total touchdowns in 2017. The Jacks also return seven starters from a defense that allowed just 23.9 points a game a year ago.
Only TCU gave up fewer points per game among Big 12 schools than Iowa State a year ago. The Cyclones could be even better in 2018, with the likes of defensive tackle Ray Lima, linebackers Marcel Spears and Willie Harvey and backs Brian Peavy and De'Andre Payne all back. Iowa State has a staggering six defensive players who earned all-league honors in 2017 set to start against the Jackrabbits.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Cyclones lost three of their five games a year ago when the game was decided by the final play. "Our niche is, we have to win in the margins. We've got to be efficient in terms of situational football. We've got to do the little things really well," Campbell said. ... NFL kicker Adam Vinatieri's nephew, Chase, is SDSU's kicker — and he might be as good as his uncle someday. Chase was 13 of 14 on field goals last season, including a 55-yarder, and knocked home 58 extra points. ...Iowa State led the nation by losing just one fumble in 2017. ...The Jacks are coming off their first FCS semifinals appearance in school history.
HE SAID IT
"I'm the kind of guy that's like 'I'll hand the ball off on every play'...it's whatever is going to work for us during the game. We have a very deep running back room," Kempt said.