Rhoads Has Another Iowa State Team Trying to Climb Mountains

By Mike Hlas, Reporter

AMES, Iowa — Paul Rhoads came charging out of the blocks of his Iowa State football Media Day press conference Thursday as if it were Sept. 1 instead of Aug. 2.

"There's a great energy around our football program," Rhoads proclaimed in his opening remarks. "I've said that and I'll continue to say it.

"Why? Because our kids play hard. They play hard and they play with a great passion for Iowa State University.

"Because of the record-setting attendance of our loyal fan base, which continues to grow as witnessed by our season-ticket sales as we head toward (the season-opener against Tulsa on) September 1st.

"Because of the construction of a brand-new football facility (that) fits all our needs and will open sometime this fall.

"And because of our football team that comes off two bowl seasons in three years and three straight three-win Big 12 performances."

That last part, going 3-5, 3-5 and 3-6 in league play, doesn't sound like something to, well, put on billboards. But Rhoads noted the Cyclones won a total of three Big 12 games over the three seasons preceding his arrival. That includes the 0-8 doughnut of 2008.

I challenge you to find another team that has won games three straight seasons (at Nebraska in 2009, at Texas in 2010, vs. Oklahoma State last year) in which they were underdogs of 20 points or more.

Rhoads then asked himself an obvious question before a reporter could beat him to the punch.

"Now, how do we take that proverbial next step?"

He proceeded to tick off generalities, like building a more-formidable defensive line, strengthening the kicking game, and "elevating the play of the entire football team."

But the story is the same here as it is every Media Day. The Cyclones are swimming with sharks in the landlocked Big 12. Now more than ever.

Exit Missouri and Texas A&M. Enter TCU and West Virginia in the reupholstered, built-to-last Big 12.

"I'm fairly confident that TCU and West Virginia will be ahead of where Missouri and Texas A&M are in the rankings," Rhoads said.

That was a much-better wager than taking Oklahoma State and laying the 27 points at Iowa State was last November.

The coaches' preseason poll was released Thursday morning. Predictably, six of the league's 10 members are in the Top 25.

"Six teams had 10 wins or more (last season)," Rhoads said. "Seven teams were ranked in the final Top 25."

The Big 12 has teams that won titles in three different conferences last year, Oklahoma State, West Virginia (Big East) and TCU (Mountain West), It's probably safe to suggest that's never happened before in college football.

So, coming off a 6-win season and the victory over Okie State that had all college football fans talking about the Cyclones deep into a November Friday night, Iowa State is the preseason pick to finish eighth in the Big 12.

Except for those picking it to place ninth.

From Oct. 6 to Nov. 3, the Cyclones face what would almost seem to be a mathematical impossibility. They face five straight conference foes who won 10 or more games last season.

The week after that? They play at Texas.

We outsiders make these projections and see those mountains in ISU's way. A Cyclone from Stone Mountain disagrees.

"I think we've turned this around," junior tight end Ernst Brun Jr. of Stone Mountain, Ga., said. "This team has so much talent this year. This team has come together as one. We're brothers now.

"Yeah, we play big-names and prestige schools. People forget they're human just like us."

By the way, before playing nine conference games, Iowa State will have opened at home against Tulsa (8-5 last year) and gone to Iowa.

Iowa State doesn't know who it's starting quarterback will be, if its offensive line can regroup after losing stalwarts Kelechi Osemele and Hayworth Hicks, or if its defense can do better than allow the 207.6 rushing yards and 30.6 points per game it surrendered in league play a year ago.

The over/under on ISU wins in Las Vegas is 4.5. Finding five wins isn't easy. Of course, neither was finding six victories last August.

That was then. Now, at least one online betting site pegs the Cyclones as 2-point underdogs ... to Tulsa.

But they've already moved a few of those mountains here under Rhoads. Why would anyone assume there aren't more pleasant surprises ahead?
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