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Bowl-Eligible Has Become Merely The Baseline For ISU

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AMES, Iowa Tears formed.

Voices cracked.

A deep sense of pride filled the chilly Iowa State locker room on Nov. 14, 2009, when the Cyclones achieved what most outside observers deemed impossible in Coach Paul Rhoads' first season: Winning a sixth regular-season game and attaining bowl eligibility.

"We beat Colorado here at home," recalled senior ISU cornerback Jeremy Reeves, who sees a chance for more progress on the horizon, beginning with Saturday's 6 p.m. Big 12 game at improving Kansas. "People ran on the field and stuff like that. It was a really fun environment. Very cool, especially as a freshman."

Six-win talk never felt so good.

It's starting to wear thin on the Cyclones (5-5, 2-5), who now view the six-triumph plateau as a bare-minimum plane of existence.

And beating a stubborn Jayhawks team (1-9, 0-7) gets them there while allowing the bigger picture to remain in sharp focus.

"A lot of progress has been made in this program since I've been here," said all-Big 12 senior linebacker A.J. Klein. "Obviously, the culture has changed, which is a good thing. The people associated with the program have changed, which is a good thing."

There's a "but" coming:

"I think we've underachieved this year sitting at 5-5 with two games left," Klein added. "But all we can do is move on. Get these last two games and get somewhere warm."

Note that beating Kansas is included in Klein's achievement index.

That neither overlooks nor discounts the Jayhawks, who haven't toppled a team currently in the Big 12 since downing ISU 41-36 about a month before the Cyclones' notable 2009 win over Colorado.

Kansas, however, is gaining ground, as evidenced by one touchdown-or-less losses to Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech.

"Their approach might be that they're 0-0, "ISU coach Paul Rhoads said when asked to compare the many ways to frame goals for teams at different stages of success. "When we arrived, we'd lost every Big 12 game. We'd lost 10 in a row. We had the longest road losing streak in the country. Some of those things I chose to focus on. Some of them I didn't. But it was all based around the expectation of winning a bowl game in that 2009 season. We would never have won in Lincoln, Nebraska, if that expectation hadn't been there, and if we hadn't already won in Kent, Ohio, earlier in the season."

Each successful step builds belief, thus breeding loftier expectations.

It's not rocket science.

It's life in what Rhoads termed the "deepest, toughest conference in college football."

"You have to trudge through the Big 12 Conference to get that sixth win," said Cyclone running back Jeff Woody, who scored the touchdown that sealed last season's improbable sixth win over Oklahoma State. "So I don't think it's necessarily getting that sixth win that's kind of a magic number, or hurdle you have to clear mentally. But the path to getting there is difficult."

Rhoads said qualifying for and winning a bowl game is an annual baseline expectation, but not a guarantee.

"We've fallen short two of three times," he said. "Didn't get to a bowl game one year then failed in New York City (last season). So there's plenty of hunger and motivation to get back to a bowl game."

Kansas can't make that impossible, whatever Saturday's result.

Six wins?

Just win.

"Build something for the future," Reeves said. "And it starts with this game."