Stormy Success With a Muddied Outlook

Let's be real here. Sports ain't war. It's not even the conflicts that take place in comic books or graphic novels. But we do treat them like those colorful images drawn up by someone at DC or Marvel. The squads we cheer for are our superheroes, almost — if not completely — infallible. Rivals are, by definition, the super villains. But those villains have friends in high places. Dominant organizations like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, New England Patriots, and others have their share of haters and detractors beyond rival fanbases.

The same thing happens in college football. Out of the top ten schools in this week's College Football Playoff rankings, eight of them have some form of championship pedigree (whether recent or deep). If you include USC, that would extend to nine of the top 13. Names as recognizable as Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, and Ohio State are seen by some as arrogant and tiresome, as if they're always on the verge of completing that feared laser-carrying shark.

As Championship Saturday approaches in the most chaotic of seasons, a new threat has emerged. This foe enters into an unfamiliar situation, disgusted by many for the first time in their memory. Out of the shadows of the cornstalks rise the Cyclones from Iowa State, a program so unassuming that they don a rarer status ... the sheepish villain. It's a role that isn't born out of building animus, but more from fluky circumstance.

For years, the Cyclone program was striving for a step above mediocrity, while struggling to keep a head above water most times. There were some good moments. There were some really good records prior to joining a conference (the Missouri Valley) in 1908. The 1938 team started 7-0 (before a draw and a loss over the last two games). There was the first bowl game in 1971 (followed by another bowl invite in 1972). However, there have been a lot of lean years in Ames.

Leave it to the pandemic to turn everything upside down. As the season went along, a couple items became apparent if you follow ISU football. This was the first year that the 'Clones beat Oklahoma and Texas in the same campaign. Partially because of this, come Saturday, ISU can win their first-ever outright conference title (the school won a share of the Missouri Valley title 108 and 109 years ago; check out Jean Neuberger's recent column for more on the history).

I'm fully aware of the special opportunity this is for the students, fans, and alums of the university. I'm among them. I was a junior at ISU when the team played their 2000 season and concluded it with the program's first bowl victory. The buzz around the campus was palpable. The excitement at the Insight Bowl (I wasn't there, but watched on TV) was fervent. I can only imagine, even in this pandemic-stricken year, the joy people connected to the school will feel if the Cyclones can knock off OU on Saturday. As much of a feel-good story as this is, though, it apparently comes with a stench.

With the ultimate chaos that Championship Saturday could bring, Iowa State could sniff the College Football Playoff. To be fair, criticism that I've heard or read isn't necessarily on the team and their season. But there are already questions about the Cyclones' placement as the sixth-best team in the CFP rankings. How could this two-loss team get vaulted over an undefeated Cincinnati that lost games ... to COVID-19, not the opposition? How could this two-loss team be so far ahead of an undefeated Coastal Carolina team that beat two ranked squads on their own schedule (including an opponent that finalized their game with four days' notice)? How could this two-loss team be so far above a Louisiana team (whom Coastal Carolina defeated) that beat them by 17 in Ames?

Problem is, all these questions aren't just valid. They should be asked. Despite the excitement I have for my alma mater's squad being in this position, the Cyclones shouldn't be there. For years, I've become increasingly annoyed with the slogan that every week during the regular season is a tournament (every game matters). There's a clear indication that:

Timing of losses (early vs. late) plays a part.
Certain losses count more than others.
Certain results really don't carry a whole bunch of weight.
Conference ties and brand names mean something in the selection process.

In 2020, the "laws" of the college football land changed so much that there was no idea how everything would play out. Ohio State is poised to go the national semifinals playing about half as many games as the other contenders. Notre Dame's toe dip in the ACC schedule turned into a swan dive, giving the conference its best chance to place multiple teams in the playoff. For a while, BYU was the only team west of the Rockies that was playing games. It has been a weird campaign. It just hasn't been one of upheaval. As I said in an earlier column, no matter the circumstance, some things in this sport stay the same.

Actually, one thing has changed. Iowa State has never been in contention for the sport's ultimate prize. Now, they're representing every definition of contention you can drum up. It's weird being the fan of a villain. Oh well, better go invest in a shark and some laser beams.

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