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2016 season preview: Iowa State Cyclones

Seven years of struggling to stay above water in the high-powered Big 12 caught up to coach Paul Rhoads, fired at Iowa State in November after he failed for a sixth straight season to post a winning record. The Cyclones turned to Toledo’s Matt Campbell, hired on his 36th birthday.

He has a tall task at hand as ISU searches for the formula to post its first winning season in Big 12 play since 2000.

Our Iowa State season preview:

Key losses: OG Daniel Burton, OT Brock Dagel, OG Oni Omoile, C Jamison Lalk, WR Quenton Bundrage, TE Ben Boesen, DE Dale Pierson, S Qujuan Floyd

Key returners: QB Joel Lanning, RB Mike Warren, WR Allen Lazard, OT Jake Campos, DT Demond Tucker, DE J.D. Waggoner, LB Willie Harvey, S Kamari Cotton-Moya, CB Jomal Wiltz, CB Brian Peavy

Preseason storyline: Just how quickly can Campbell flip the mindset in Ames? Iowa State long ago grew tired of playing the role of league doormat. Despite its offensive talent with Lanning, Lazard and Warren, who posted the third-best rushing total by a freshman in Big 12 history a year ago, the Cyclones appear set up again to get trampled in the opening weeks of league play . It opens with trips to TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas sandwiched around a home game against Baylor -- all before a Week 8 bye.

Campbell worked his magic quickly at Toledo, upsetting nationally ranked Cincinnati in 2012, his first full season after earning the promotion from offensive coordinator. He later beat Iowa State and Arkansas, building a solid ground game that churned yardage against Mid-American Conference foes.

The Cyclones won’t win consistently in this league without an improved defense and an offense that operates in a fashion somewhat differently from the explosive Big 12 units in the south. Campbell looks like the right coach to craft a good plan. Can he do it while his in-place offensive weapons remain?

Most interesting position: The secondary -- cornerback, in particular -- looks strong, with the return of numerous key pieces. Three-year starter Nigel Tribune remains suspended after a July arrest, but Iowa State is stacked at his position with the senior Wiltz and sophomore Peavy.

Peavy, at 5-foot-9, is technically advanced and produced as well last year, with 82 tackles, as Cotton-Moya did in 2014 en route to Big 12 defensive freshman of the year.

Speaking of Cotton-Moya, he missed six games last year with a hamstring injury. His return to good health bodes well for Iowa State, which possesses the parts to improve in a big way over its disappointing pass-defense results in 2015.

Game that matters most: Until the Cyclones look equipped to challenge for a spot near the top of the Big 12, it’s always Iowa. The Hawkeyes are coming off a 12-win season and their first Rose Bowl in a quarter-century. Meanwhile, ISU has missed the postseason entirely for three straight years. This game -- Sept. 10 in Iowa City -- means everything within state borers.

The road team has walked away with the Cy-Hawk Trophy in each of the past four seasons, including Iowa State wins at Kinnick Stadium in 2012 and 2014. Last year, Iowa mounted a second-half rally to win by two touchdowns, the biggest margin of victory in this series since 2010. So it’s not farfetched to imagine an ISU victory in Week 2.

If the Cyclones can pull it off on the heels of a season-opening defeat of Northern Iowa, the Campbell era would be off to an amazing start.

Prediction: Maybe next season we’ll be ready to predict that big win over Iowa for Campbell, which would help him in so many ways to erase lingering doubts. The aforementioned treacherous slate to start Big 12 play is unfortunate. We expect Iowa State to win two games out of conference and two more in league play. A 4-8 finish represents only minor progress, but this transformation won’t happen overnight.