Welcome to the playoff race, Iowa State.

After pulling off the best season in school history, the scrappy underdogs from Ames now find themselves in unfamiliar territory among the frontrunners, lauded as a legitimate preseason top-10 team going into the 2021 season. And they should be. This isn’t a case of a New Year’s Six bowl winner commanding a little too much carryover hype. Iowa State has all the pieces.

The No. 7 squad in The Athletic’s post-spring top 25 lost one starter on offense and two on defense from the 2020 team that won nine games, nearly won a Big 12 title and knocked off Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cyclones’ returning players have accumulated close to 450 career starts. Seven starters opted to come back as super seniors, and they could easily have as many as 17 seniors in starting roles. They have the Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, their first-team All-Big 12 quarterback and seven more all-conference players back.

These heightened external expectations do not matter to coach Matt Campbell one bit, and he knows he doesn’t have to worry about this veteran team falling for the praise and forgetting what got them this far. This loaded senior class is not going to let things slip.

“One of the things I love about having some veteran-ness is nobody else outside these walls are going to define who we are,” Campbell said. “Our kids can do that. I think the leadership from the top down has given back so next year’s class is ready to handle the reins. I think that’s what a real program looks like. To have the guys like Greg Eisworth, Chase Allen, Enyi Uwazurike and Sean Foster come back, they’re not the five-star household names but they’re damn good players.

“What they’re even greater at is they’re gonna hold you accountable, they’re gonna hold the standard and there’s an expectation. It’s not the expectation of what so-and-so says about us. It’s the expectation of here’s how we do things and this is how we’re gonna do it.”

These returning players, he added, know what this team really is. They haven’t forgotten, even with all the accolades, that this is not the most talented team in the Big 12. They still have to win in the margins and do the little things extremely well. This group has been through a ton together. Campbell argues they might actually look back on 2020 and say that, in some ways, it was one of their easier years as a team. It took a ton of maturity, dedication and high standards to succeed while playing in a pandemic. To him, 2021 is harder.