Note: Longhorns Country's "Around the Big 12" series will feature stories on all 10 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
ARLINGTON -- Breece Hall said it best last season when Iowa State hoisted the Fiesta Bowl trophy over Oregon.
Not five-star talent, but rather "Five-Star Culture." That culture will be on full view in 2021 as the Cyclones look to build off a season where they proved the doubters wrong.
“The five-star culture just really defines our team,” Hall said inside AT&T Stadium on Wednesday at Big 12 media days. “It shows that we don’t have those guys that everybody wants. We don’t have the guys who care about the glitz and glamour and the guys with all the hype. We just have guys who are ready to come in, work their butts off and play.”
Matt Campbell returns to Ames for his sixth season with the program. The team is coming off a 9-3 record, hoping that last year was the start of something special.
The Cyclones won't be alone in the journey as they return a plethora of talent. Brock Purdy heads back under center. Hall, who led the FBS in rushing yards, will be the go-to runner. Tight end Charlie Kolar has a chance to be a difference-maker and the go-to weapon on his way to John Mackey Award.
Perhaps the biggest return is Campbell himself. Last offseason, the NFL came calling as both the Detroit Lions and New York Jets were interested. The Lions even gave a price, reportedly offering him a five-year, $68.5 million deal.
When asked, Campbell remained calm. Why leave when there's unfinished business?
“For me, very simply put, I didn’t get in this profession to be somebody,” Campbell said. “I got in this profession to do something.”
That business could be halted once more. The Cyclones stalled in a rematch against Oklahoma for the Big 12 title last December inside the same halls they sat Wednesday. Purdy's slow start allowed the Sooners to jump out to a 24-7 lead at the half.
A close comeback wasn't enough, and the Sooners made it six straight title finishes.
Once again, Oklahoma takes the lead in the rankings. Iowa State is projected to finish behind Lincoln Riley's squad for the second-straight season in the preseason rankings.
Hall could care less about the rankings at the start. He's focused on the finish.
"We're not really paying attention to the outside noise," Hall said. "We're only counting on ourselves and the expectations we have for each other. For us, we just want to progress and take it one step at a time."
Experience is key for any team looking for a title. The Cyclones have that trait better than most. They'll return 10 starters on offense, nine on defense, and all three special teamers looking to play again.
Kolar could be the breakout star, similar to what Hall was in 2020. He posted serviceable numbers (44 catches, 591 yards, seven touchdowns), but who's to say that's just the tip of the iceberg?
The tight end position has adapted into one of the more prominent roles on offense. With the success of names like TJ Hockenson and Kyle Pitts, Kolar could be the next great do-it-all weapon.
"Charlie is the most untypical football player that you will ever see," Hall said. "If you see him walking around on a regular day, you wouldn't think he'd play football.
"The way he moves and the way he runs his routes is very different and I feel he uses that to his advantage. That's why he's able to get open all the time."
Defensively, Mike Rose returns up the middle and is prepped for a chance to earn another trophy. Last season, the linebacker tallied 96 total tackles, along with five interceptions on his way to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Fifth-year safety Greg Eisworth II said Rose's presence is more than just keeping a player who knows how to tackle.
"You get to keep a leader on the defense," Eisworth said. "I think that's big time for our unit and should solidify that linebacker corp."
Iowa State opens up the new season against Northern Iowa and against in-state rival Iowa at home. They also head to Las Vegas' Allegiant Stadium to take on UNLV. A slow start could be the difference in returning to a New Year's Six Bowl or perhaps looking on the outside.
That will be a key for Campbell in 2021 after slow starts in 2019 and 20. Last year, the team lost the season opener to No. 19 Louisiana at home. The team's next loss came midseason to No. 21 Oklahoma State.
Part of the reason to believe in the Cyclones is that veteran leadership. In the offseason, Campbell spoke with all players looking to make the jump from college to the pros. He told them that first, they must do what's best for them.
They all agreed what was best was returning to Ames.
"For me, watching them, seeing the growth they've made, even in the offseason and over the last six months is really impressive," Campbell said. "It's going to benefit us."
Iowa State doesn't have the five-star talent in the building to compete with the likes of Texas and Oklahoma forever. They do have a roster that has been to the finish line. Last year, they just fell short and were forced to play catch up.
The five-star talent could come over time. The "Five-Star Culture"? The Cyclones have that locked down — and it could propel them to their first conference title in school history.
“When your best players stand for what you believe in, and they’re willing to fight for the standard and the culture, then I think your culture has a chance to bleed out,” Campbell said.
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