Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Breece Hall (28) against the Oregon Ducks in the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7 Iowa State opens with Northern Iowa, high expectations

Expectations may have been higher once upon a time for No. 7 Iowa State, but it’s hard to convince its rabid fan base otherwise at this point.

The defending Big 12 Conference regular season champs return virtually every player of note ahead of Saturday’s season opener with FCS opponent Northern Iowa in Ames and expect to sell up to 49,000 season tickets — a school record.

“We’ve earned the expectations people have for us,” said Cyclones running back Breece Hall to the Des Moines Register. “We know how good we can be.”

The job coach Matt Campbell has done is nothing short of spectacular. Iowa State has jumped multiple levels in his five years, going from occasionally competitive to good to suddenly a contender to play for a national title.

Campbell has won three Big 12 Coach of the Year awards in the last four years. The Cyclones’ 32 wins over the past four seasons is the most in program history. And with 19 starters returning, Iowa State has the experience to match its burgeoning skill.

What’s more, the players are comfortable with wearing a target that most Cyclone teams have shot at in vain.

“This is where we’ve always wanted to be with our program,” said quarterback Brock Purdy. “This is what we’ve envisioned, so it’s a reality for us now. We know that.”

Hall rushed for 1,572 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, while Purdy completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 2,750 yards with 19 scores and nine interceptions. The defense is led by middle linebacker Mike Rose, who notched 96 tackles, including 10 1/2 for losses, and intercepted five passes.

In going 9-3 last year and beating Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, Iowa State finished one of its best seasons with a quality win over a proven brand name. And even its one so-called bad loss in the first game turned out to be not so bad when Louisiana spent most of the year in the Top 25.

That defeat might be why the Cyclones pledge not to overlook Northern Iowa. Another reason might be the last time the teams played. It took Iowa State three overtimes to hold off the Panthers 29-26 just two years ago.

UNI went 3-4 in the spring, when the Missouri Valley Football Conference opted to play its schedule due to COVID-19, and failed to qualify for the 16-team FCS playoff field. It expects to do better than its predicted finish of fifth place in the MVFC because it returns all 22 starters.

“If we can win our league, which I know we can, we can win a national championship,” wide receiver Logan Wolf said to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

The Panthers’ top returnee might be defensive tackle Jared Brinkman, an All-America pick on the FCS level who was his conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Offensive tackle Trevor Penning, who’s 6-7 and 335 pounds, is considered an NFL prospect.

Will McElvain has started 21 games for UNI and tossed 20 touchdown passes as a freshman, but coach Mark Farley brought in Michigan State transfer Theo Day to compete for the starting job. It’s not known who will take the first snap on Saturday.

–Field Level Media