It is the start of November and the 21st-ranked Kansas Jayhawks (6-2, 3-2 Big 12) and the Iowa State Cyclones (5-3, 4-1 Big 12) find themselves in the front of the Big 12 spotlight. This Saturday, Iowa State and Kansas will kick off their pivotal conference matchup at 6 p.m. The implications that are on the line for both teams are unlike any we have seen in recent history.
The Cyclones have more than overachieved with their offseason struggles. With Iowa State losing five starters, the goal for the year was to get four or so wins and build for next season. Quickly, the Cyclones changed that tone, winning three straight and outscoring opponents 87-42. Coming off their first victory in Waco, Texas, since 2017 over the Baylor Bears 30-18, the Cyclones jumped into a five-way tie for first place in the conference. They are now just one win away from punching their ticket into bowl eligibility.
“Our program has been its best when we have just worried about what is going on here and now,” coach Matt Campbell said. “This group has passed that test in a way because I think people wrote them off probably in May and they have had the ability to just worry about the process to be successful.”
Kansas has become one of the fastest flipped programs in the country. From 2017 to 2021, the Jayhawks held an overall record of 9-48. After upsetting the sixth-ranked and then undefeated Oklahoma Sooners 38-33 last week, head coach Lance Leipold cemented a consecutive 6+ win season. Winning six or more games in back-to-back seasons is something Kansas fans have not seen since they hit that mark in four straight seasons (2005-’08).
Top-defense versus top-offense
While Rocco Becht has done more than a wonderful job guiding the young offense, the backbone of this Cyclones team falls on the secondary. In just one year, Iowa State has jumped from ranking 116th in turnover margin to now being a top-3 defense in terms of interceptions (13). During the three-game winning streak, Iowa State’s defense has forced eight total turnovers. The Cyclones currently sit atop the Big 12 in defensive efficiency (106.7).
“Are guys are just making it happen and we are able to get into the right place at the right time,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said about the team’s ability to turnover the ball. “I think a lot of it is preparation.”
Statically, this is the best offense the Cyclones defense has faced in conference play since their week five loss to Oklahoma. Kansas ranks second in the conference with an offensive efficiency of 160.1. The Jayhawks are not a pass-heavy team, where their offense will challenge Iowa State on the ground. For the second straight season, Kansas ranks top-five in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (213.6).
The dynamic duo of Jason Bean at quarterback and Devin Neal in the backfield has guided the Jayhawks to their 6-2 record. Neal is having arguably the best three-game stretch by any running back in the country rushing for over 110 yards in two out of the last three games. Last week, he torched a top-five rushing defense for 112 yards, 25 carries, and one touchdown.
“That is one thing they have got two elite quarterbacks and two guys that really challenge you in the run game,” Campbell said.
It would come as no shock that Iowa State is prepared to face both Bean and Jalon Daniels. Two quarterbacks with a similar run-first mentality head the Jayhawk offense. Bean has been the go-to guy with over 1,100 yards passing with nine touchdowns on top of his 155 yards rushing.
With the emotions running high at a sold-out Jack Trice Stadium and the defense playing at their best, I see Iowa State winning their fourth straight 35-30.