It has been 20 years since Iowa State finished ranked in the AP top 25. That No. 25 finish in 2000 was one of just two times in program history the Cyclones finished as a ranked team, with the other a No. 19 finish in 1976.
With that as a backdrop, the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against Oregon on Jan. 2 (4 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App) will be the final game for what will almost surely go down as the best Iowa State (8-3) team ever.
Still, it’s fair to question if either team should have received an invitation in the first place.
Iowa State, which finished at No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings, received the final New Year’s Six at-large bid ahead of a Coastal Carolina team that has a more deserving resume. The Chanticleers finished the year undefeated (11-0) as co-champions of the Sun Belt and recorded a win, on the road, against Louisiana. That game is notable because it was Louisiana’s only loss of the season and the Ragin’ Cajuns won at Iowa State by 17 earlier in the season.
Even with that unjustifiable miss by the committee, the Cyclones are more deserving of a place than No. 25 Oregon (4-2), which received the Pac-12’s automatic bid by winning the conference title game it played in only because Washington was unavailable because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Here’s what to watch on Jan. 2 in Glendale, Ariz.:
Key player for Iowa State: RB Breece Hall. Just a sophomore, Hall was named a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s best running back, after leading the country with 1,436 yards rushing. He’s one of just 12 players nationally to crack the 1,000-yard mark and his 19 rushing touchdowns ranked behind only Alabama’s Najee Harris (24). Oregon’s rush defense allowed 4.21 yards per carry, which ranked No. 30 among the 55 Power 5 teams.
Key player for Oregon: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux. One of two first-team All-Pac-12 selections for the Ducks, Thibodeaux is among the nation’s most dangerous pass rushers. He led the team in both sacks (3) and tackles for loss (7.5) and is the type of talent that will deserve special attention from Iowa State as it puts together a game plan. Since arriving as one of the nation’s most sought-after defensive players, Thibodeaux has lived up to his billing.
Matchup to watch: With Hall deserving of so much attention, it’s possible the Ducks will have to rely more on individual matchups in the secondary than they would otherwise. That possibility makes the matchup between Oregon cornerback Mykael Wright, the Ducks’ other first-team all-conference player, with Iowa State receiver Xavier Hutchinson (60 catches, 726 yards) an interesting one to keep an eye on. The Cyclones have a dangerous tight end in Charlie Kolar (39 catches, 538 yards), too, who can cause a lot of problems.
College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T
Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Florida)
Jan. 11: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App
College Football Playoff Semifinal at The Rose Bowl Game
AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Jan. 1: 4 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App
College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Jan. 1: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App
X factor: The unknown component to this game that is (hopefully) unique to this season is that Iowa State enters the game having played 11 games and accumulated the bumps and bruises that come with playing a full season. Oregon played just seven and, in theory, should be the fresher team. Is that an advantage for Oregon? Maybe. Does Iowa State have the advantage because it has been practicing and playing longer? Also, maybe.
Motivation factor: It’s fair to question if the usual motivating factors even apply this year considering how different the whole season has been, but one thing is clear: this is rarefied air for Iowa State. Losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game might have been deflating, but the opportunity to bounce back with a New Year’s Six win and finish the season ranked in the top 10 figures to have the Cyclones ready to go. For the Ducks, this ground has been plowed in the past and as the defending Rose Bowl champions, this type of game is the expectation.