Mailbag: Where does Iowa State football go in a pivotal offseason?

FORT WORTH, Texas – It already felt as though Iowa State was headed into one of the most critical offseasons of coach Matt Campbell’s tenure, and that was before the Cyclones got absolutely smoked by No. 4 TCU, 62-14, in Saturday night's season finale at Amon G. Carter Stadium.

As it stands now, there’s no question this is a monumental winter for Campbell’s program, which has gone 11-14, including 4-8 overall and 1-8 in the Big 12 this year, in the two years since going to the Big 12 championship game and winning the Fiesta Bowl in the 2020 season.

“The record is what the record is,” Campbell said Saturday evening. “We’re not going to run from it. That’s why they keep score, and that’s why they give you a record. It’s a drastic difference from where we were two years ago.

“Those are real things. I’m not going to hide from that. That’s the reality. A lot of soul searching here in the next couple days and weeks, and really try to evaluate where we are and where we have the ability to go.”

It’s a fraught moment for Iowa State, a program that has generally trended upward in each of Campbell’s seasons. But it now sees the momentum and success it has built sputtering largely behind one of the country’s worst offenses.

“A lot of things for us to evaluate where we are and where we need to move ourselves forward,” Campbell said. “Definitely a different offseason than we’ve had, and in some ways we need it.

“We need the time to grow in a lot of ways.”

Let’s get to your questions about where Iowa State goes from here.

More:Frustrating season ends with a thud as Iowa State blown out by No. 4 TCU

What changes are coming to the offense?

Perhaps it's best to let Iowa State tight end DeShawn Hanika set the stakes of where the Cyclones' offense is heading into the offseason.

“People got to buy in, and if you’re not willing to buy in, you need to leave because we’re coming on a mission,” the junior said.

“I will not be the embarrassment of the Big 12 again.”

Hanika is exactly right – Iowa State’s offense was the embarrassment of the league, averaging just 14.2 points per Big 12 game. TCU, the league’s best offense, averaged just under 40.

That disparity is exactly why it seems as though change is imminent to Iowa State’s offense.

“We have to really do some soul searching and evaluation of where we’re at, where we need to go and how you continue to move yourself forward,” Campbell said. “Obviously, you can’t play that style of football or have those mistakes and that much inconsistency in football games. It was proven this year, obviously.

“We have done great things here, and we have been able to do great things on the offensive side here. So we’re not naïve to that, but we’ve really got to take a hard look at where we’re at and obviously where we’re going.”

Campbell was never going to immediately lay out his road map for the offseason, but those are about as strong of words as you can imagine him saying publicly after a game about what direction the offense needs to go.

It seems as though change is inevitable, though to what degree and through what maneuvers is the question.

Is offensive coordinator Tom Manning back? What about offensive line coach Jeff Myers or quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon?

Does Iowa State overhaul its system? Does it change the type of players it targets on the recruiting trail and the transfer portal?

Only Campbell knows what direction he’s leaning, but after such a season, it’s clear that all options and angles should be considered.

“It was frustrating because you saw flashes of what we could be,” Hanika said. “At times we looked amazing, and at times we looked terrible. Going from fall camp, we had a lot of confidence, and maybe that was false confidence, and we didn’t deserve that confidence. This season, it was an eye-opener.

“I personally feel like I let the defense down. One of the best defenses we’ve ever had in this program, and we let them down.”

More:Iowa State football report card: Cyclones fail in regular-season finale against TCU

How many games has special teams cost us over the past three seasons?

While the offense has stolen the show for dysfunction, Iowa State special teams haven’t been far behind. It’s been a consistent issue dating back to at least the 2020 season, and it was again a sore spot this year.

It was on full display against TCU, with freshman kicker Jace Gilbert missing two field goals along with special teams botching a snap on a punt and allowing a kick return back to its own 36.

And while Campbell seemed open to significant changes offensively, he was more guarded about what needs to be done with special teams.

“The biggest struggle has been the inconsistency at the kicker position,” Campbell said. “That’s not a negative – you've got a young freshman that’s trying to find his way. I would put as much challenge on me. Should we have put that kid in that situation early in his career? The great thing about Jace is he’s a young guy that you see improving with great consistency. A lot of lessons learned. I feel like we made great strides there to be honest with you.

“I don’t feel like we’re as far off there as where we need to be, but I think we’ve really got to evaluate some things and figure out how do we put ourselves consistently in position to be successful.”

That didn’t necessarily sound like a man who was about to go make a special teams coordinator hire.

While the offense’s issues are the most pressing this offseason, the Iowa State special teams need to be addressed or it will continue to haunt them in the increasingly common close games the Cyclones find themselves trying to win.

More:Peterson: Thoughts about an Iowa State football season that ends with tough decisions on the horizon

Where do you go from here? Are we more cellar-proof than we were in 2012-13?

If college football has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is promised.

There’s no magical level a program hit that makes it immune from backsliding in the future. Just look west at Nebraska. From full-on blue blood to punch line in a couple decades.

The reality is that every program – and especially hardscrabble ones like Iowa State – has to guard every day against erosion. It is incredibly hard – and previously impossible – to reach the highs Campbell and his staff reached with Iowa State. It’s proving even harder to stay there.

That said, Iowa State is well positioned with Campbell at the helm. The recruiting remains at a high level. The facilities are brand new. The athletic department is pushing forward with its CYTown concept which it hopes can generate millions of dollars.

The Cyclones have a real brand and identity that doesn’t go away after one bad season. Campbell and his staff have shown they know how to win at a high level over multiple years. That doesn’t just go away.

But there are also headwinds. The transfer portal and the dollars available for athletes in the Name, Imagine and Likeness space could be difficult terrain for Iowa State to navigate. A shifting Big 12 membership could be an opportunity for Iowa State, but every school in the newly aligned league feels the same way and will be competing for the same space. The stagnation and regression of the last two years will be used against Iowa State by programs competing against them on the recruiting trail and the transfer portal.

It takes years to build up a program, but it can unravel quickly.

That's not a prediction of what awaits Iowa State, but rather just a truism in the cutthroat world of college sports.

Iowa State has proven it can accomplish difficult things. The challenge is to keep proving it, day after day, year after year. If they don’t, there’s only one other direction to go.

This offseason feels like a pivotal moment for Campbell to set the course.

Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at thines@amestrib.com or (515) 284-8000. Follow him at @TravisHines21.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Mailbag: What's next for Iowa State as it heads into the offseason?