AMES, Iowa — This year — like every year — Iowa State fans scoured the schedule before the season in hopes of finding a path to the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.
It's such exceedingly low expectations that second-year coach Matt Campbell and his players have worked so hard to change — and those efforts have become evident over the past three weeks.Iowa State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12), which won seven games in the previous three seasons combined, vaulted into the AP Top 25 for the first time in 12 years this week on the heels of a three-game winning streak.
The 25th-ranked Cyclones, bolstered by a standout senior class searching for its first winning season, host No. 4 TCU on Saturday.
"The most incredible thing for me is to see the ownership of our players," Campbell said. "None of it has been easy for those 19 (seniors). But they've stayed the course. They've just got this thick skin about them. It goes back to not really caring what anybody says about the program or the high and lows of winning and losing. Just staying the course and getting better."
Campbell often uses the term "Raise The Standard" on social media, a motto that serves as a mission statement for a program conditioned to fail for pretty much a century.
In November of 2015, Campbell took over a program that had never won a Big 6, Big 8 or Big 12 conference title or a prestigious bowl game. The Cyclones have been so historically downtrodden that one of the their biggest moments came when running back Troy Davis finished second in the 1996 Heisman vote — for a team that went 2-9.
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It looked like it would be more of the same for Iowa State until late last season, when it inexplicably throttled a bad Texas Tech team 66-10 for just its third win. But instead of celebrating, Campbell encouraged his players to work to ensure that that win wouldn't be their high point.
The Cyclones were improved but inconsistent to start this season, losing home games to Iowa and Texas to start 2-2. But the program's breakthrough came at then-No. 3 Oklahoma — when Iowa State overpowered the Sooners 38-31 — and the winning hasn't stopped.
Iowa State pounded Kansas 45-0 and dominated Texas Tech 31-13 on the road to return to the Top 25 after being picked to finish ninth in the Big 12's preseason poll.
"It's a player-led program. Ever since coach Campbell got here he's always talked about how you're not going to win games with a coach-led program. It's got to be players leading," linebacker Joel Lanning said. "This senior class learned a lot from last year and the year before ... and just said 'Screw that.' And we put our foot down and started leading."
The Cyclones enter this weekend's showdown with the first-place Horned Frogs with a chance to grab the conference lead heading into November.
Though it still seems unlikely that Iowa State will actually win the Big 12 — even saying so aloud would draw quite a chuckle on most Big 12 campuses — the culture Campbell has instilled in Ames could help the Cyclones compete for the league title year in and year out.
That's something Iowa State has never really done before.
"There's got to be a common goal. And everybody that touches the program has to be aligned with that. Players, coaches ... the academic staff, the athletic training staff, the equipment staff, because everybody touches everything every single day," Campbell said. "The biggest thing we've been able to do is align a vision of where we want the program to go, and everybody is held accountable to that, and you're either with us and aligned to it and you want to be with that or you start to really stick out like a sore thumb."