Iowa State’s Big 12 title chances took a massive jump last week. The NCAA announced that quarterback Kyle Kempt earned a sixth year of eligibility, which means he’ll be back under center for the Cyclones in 2018.
The Cyclones still have plenty of production to replace on both sides. Wide receivers Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler were elite, and both are gone. Six Cyclone defenders are also gone to graduation, including do-everything linebacker Joel Lanning.
However, the Big 12 is starved for returning quarterback production. Only five of the top 12 quarterbacks in passer rating are back. None of the league’s three 10-win teams return a quarterback in 2018. That gives the Cyclones a quiet advantage heading into a tumultuous Big 12 in 2018.
Kempt was one of the best stories in college football last season. After getting pushed out at Oregon State, and failing to earn playing time at Hutchinson Community College, Kempt walked on at Iowa State. After starter Jacob Park left the team for personal issues, Iowa State thrust Kempt into a starting role.
The effect was immediate. Kempt led Iowa State to a 38-31 win over No. 3 Oklahoma on the road. It ranked as the biggest win in program history. Two weeks later, Kempt led a 14-7 win over No. 4 TCU as well, this time in Ames.
Kempt was not as talented as Park, but he was more accurate. He set the Iowa State record by completing 66.3 percent of his passes. He threw a touchdown in all eight of his starts, and multiple scores five times.
His surprising performance was enough to lead the Cyclones to their first bowl game since 2012. Kempt led Iowa State to a 21-20 win over No. 20 Memphis on the Tigers’ home field.
Despite playing a tougher schedule, Iowa State averaged more points and more yards per game in the seven games against Power Five teams that Kempt started than the three that either Park or Zeb Noland started. That included wins against Oklahoma and TCU. The three losses were by a combined 12 points.
Big 12 opening
Kempt isn’t a spectacular player. He’s not there to make wild plays and pull off unlikely victories for Iowa State (even though he’s done it). Instead, he’s the perfect complementary piece in head coach Matt Campbell’s offense.
The Cyclones have to replace Butler and Lazard, but there are options on the roster. Senior Matthew Eaton stands 6-foot-4 and caught 21 passes in 2017. The top two recruits in the 2018 recruiting class are both hulking wide receivers: 4-star Joseph Scates and 6-foot-6 behemoth Sean Shaw Jr. The entire offense will also revolve around star running back David Montgomery. Kempt just needs to keep defenses honest.
If Iowa State can keep up its offensive production after losing so many top receivers, the Big 12 is wide open.
Oklahoma is obviously the overwhelming favorite. However, the Sooners lost consensus All-Americans Orlando Brown, Baker Mayfield and Mark Andrews. Replacing those players won’t be instantaneous. TCU also lost the majority of its stars on both sides of the ball. Oklahoma State should take a massive step back after losing 10 key starters.
Iowa State is also losing stars on both sides, but the roster is still experienced. Defensive back Brian Peavy and linebacker Marcel Spears lead what should still be an excellent unit. The spotlight will remain on the offense.
The Cyclones have a tough path to win the Big 12 conference. Keep in mind, this program hasn’t won a conference championship since before World War I. But with Kempt coming back to run the offense, 2018 could be another special season in Ames.
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