The Cyclones dropped a 24-13 at home to Texas Tech in the league lidlifter, but bounced back to take care of TCU the following week, on the road no less. However, coach Paul Rhoads' club would have fleeting success the rest of the way, losing six of their final eight games, the finale of which being a 31-17 setback in a rematch with Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl.
ISU has participated in a bowl game in three of the last four years and while they may not necessarily challenge for the Big 12 title with any degree of regularity, the Cyclones have the unwavering support of a rabid fan base and that is something the program can use to build upon as it looks to the future.
OFFENSE: With the fewest returning starters of any team in the Big 12, Iowa State will be hard-pressed to even replicate last year's sub par offensive effort, the team averaging 24.5 points and 364.2 total yards per game -- both of which ranked ninth in the 10-team conference.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Richardson saw limited action last season, but wound up throwing eight touchdown passes in only 79 pass attempts. Having been all but assured of the starting gig this season, Richardson will be working with a relatively inexperienced receiving corps as most of last year's top pass- catchers are gone. Sophomore Quentin Brundage (20 receptions, 232 yards, two TDs) is expected to fill the role of ISU's go-to guy down the field.
Three offensive linemen return, and it will be up to them to help keep Richardson upright most of the time, and of course to open holes for the talented stable of running backs the Cyclones employ, including senior James White (99 carries, 505 yards, two TDs). Also back are Jeff Woody (40 carries, 193 yards, two TDs) and Shontrell Johnson (115 carries, 504 yards, two TDs), although the latter is recovering from a knee injury so it remains to be seen just how effective he will be. Also expected to figure in the mix are newcomers Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy.
Although there are certainly questions regarding his offense, Rhoads appears comfortable going into the season.
"We feel we have a returning starter in quarterback Sam Richardson. Our running back position is the deepest it's ever been and has, what we feel, pretty good quality."
DEFENSE: While the offense may take a little time to find its way with a new full-time starter under center, the Iowa State defense will likely be a work in progress all season long. Last year's unit was respectable in yielding the third-fewest points on average in the Big 12 (23.9 ppg), but it ranked near the bottom nationally in passing yards allowed (265.3 ypg) and total defense (442.2 ypg).
The loss of former standouts A.J. Klein and Jake Knott leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the field, although senior linebacker Jeremiah George is a talented guy who could shine now that he's out of the shadow of his higher- profile teammates. Also expected to garner significant playing time is freshman Luke Knott, Jake's younger brother.
The secondary boasts the unit's top returning tackler in senior safety Jacques Washington (90 stops, three interceptions), as well as fellow seniors Deon Broomfield (45 tackles, two interceptions) and Jansen Watson (41 tackles).
Up front is where the Cyclones will likely experience most of their growing pains as three-fourths of the line must be replaced. Senior defensive end Willie Scott will be the anchor, but there is uncertainty at nearly every other position, a fact that while not lost on Rhoads, sparks a measure of excitement as he looks ahead to the unit growing together as the season wears on.
"As we went through spring ball, we're probably the fastest, most athletic defense, if not team that we've put on the field, albeit it young," Rhoads stated recently.
"I'd rather be coaching young talented guys than young slow guys or undersized guys."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Iowa State has one of the top punters in the Big 12 in senior Kirby Van Der Camp, but the hope is he will be used a whole lot less this season after kicking the ball away 77 times in averaging 41.0 ypp in 2012. Edwin Arceo was 12-of-18 on field goal attempts last year, booting a pair through from 50+ yards, and he will attempt to be even more accurate during this, his senior season.
As for the return game, that is an area in which ISU needs to improve after failing to do all that much last season, both in terms of securing favorable field position or in putting points on the scoreboard.
OUTLOOK: Much like last year, the Cyclones will really help their cause by winning their non-conference bouts, the first of which occurs in Ames against FCS foe Northern Iowa on Aug. 31. They also get rival Iowa at home two weeks later before heading to Tulsa to tangle with the Golden Hurricane for the third time in little more than a year.
The Big 12 docket will once again be difficult, but getting Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU at home helps. Consecutive road clashes at Texas Tech and Baylor in mid-October could be telling -- win those and they'd likely be in decent shape as they stare down a murderous six-game stretch to close out the regular season.