Unfortunately, Iowa State stumbled right out of the gate, dropping a 28-20 decision to FCS foe Northern Iowa, which started the team on a downward spiral that would see it win a mere three games in 12 opportunities.
After falling to intrastate rival Iowa (27-21) in week 3, the Cyclones logged their first win by taking out Tulsa on the road (38-21), but the start of conference play meant a much tougher road, one it failed to navigate successfully as the team would lose seven straight heading into the final two games of the regular season.
Coach Paul Rhoads, who many believe has done a solid job in his five years in Ames, rallied his troops to blank Kansas (34-0), and also to outlast West Virginia in an overtime thriller (52-44) to end the campaign on a positive note.
OFFENSE: Iowa State's offense was one of the least effective in the nation last season, averaging 24.8 points and 363.0 yards per game. The return of several starters, including the entire offensive line, should allow for growth, but Rhoads wanted to bolster the unit even more so he brought in former Kansas head coach Mark Mangino to serve as offensive coordinator. Mangino brings a renewed offensive spirit to the table, along with a feisty attitude that caused him some problems in the past, but Rhoads is confident that the most notable of the six newest members of his coaching staff will ignite the ISU offense in a way that will benefit the team significantly.
"[Mangino] has a proven track record as a play caller, as a tough guy, type of coach in what he could bring to our offensive mentality that way, but at the very top of the list was the simplicity with which his offenses have had success, and that was something that our program needed."
Mangino's first order of business will be deciding on a quarterback to run his spread offense, with both Sam B. Richardson and Grant Rohach vying for the starting job. Richardson (1,397 yards, 11 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) started most of the games last season, but Rohach led the team to its two season- ending victories by passing for more than 300 yards in each game. Whomever wins the starting job, expect him to get the ball to junior wide receiver Quenton Brundage (48 receptions, 676 yards, 9 touchdowns) as often as possible. Also expected to contribute are true freshman Allen Lazard, South Florida transfer D'Vario Montgomery, as well as senior tight end E.J. Bibbs (Second Team All-Big 12 in 2013).
Senior center Tom Farniok is the anchor up front, and if the unit as a whole stays healthy, unlike last season, the offensive line could be an area of strength.
DEFENSE: The Cyclones were also one of the worst defensive teams in the country last season, ranking 108th in scoring defense (36.0 ppg) and 105th in total defense (463.1 ypg). The return of only five guys with starting experience could be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how quickly the new guys develop.
One guy who could really shine is sophomore linebacker Luke Knott. The brother of former ISU star Jake Knott, Luke missed half of his rookie campaign due to injury, but still managed to notch 45 tackles. Fellow linebacker Jared Brackens is the team's top returning tackler (61 stops), and is hoping to raise that number during this, his senior season.
Senior Cory Morrissey is expected to be the keystone in the trenches, but there isn't a whole lot of experience beyond him. The secondary boasts the return of corners Nigel Tribune and Sam Richardson.
Despite some glaring weaknesses, Rhoads believes his defense will be energetic and could surprise some people with their effort.
"We will be a young, spirited [defensive] group and, quite honestly, will be led by our defensive coordinator, veteran Wally Burnham who has been doing it for a lot of years, and I look forward to watching him mold this group."
SPECIAL TEAMS: A pair of youngsters will handle kicking duties for Iowa State this season, with sophomore Cole Netten back after hitting 72 percent of his field goal attempts as a rookie. Freshman punter Colin Downing had an outstanding prep career, and he will do his best to help the Cyclones win the field position battle whenever called upon.
OUTLOOK: Iowa State has an extremely tough game to open the 2014 campaign, as three-time defending FCS National Champion North Dakota State comes to Ames on Aug. 30. The Big 12 slate gets underway a week later versus Kansas State, followed by clashes with Iowa and Baylor.
The Cyclones will play their final non-league game of the regular season on Oct. 11 at home against Toledo, before embarking on a murderous stretch that will see them tangle with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, West Virginia and TCU. Sandwiched in there is a trip to Kansas, which could very well be the team's only shot at a conference victory, and one you just know Mangino wants bad.