AMES - Much has been made of the Iowa State football team's schedule, with many calling it the country's most difficult.
The focus has largely centered around the four preseason top-10 teams on the Cyclones' slate, but ISU will face an additional four teams that advanced to bowl games last season, starting with its opponent in tonight's 7 p.m. season-opening contest at Jack Trice Stadium, Northern Illinois, in a game that will be televised nationally on Fox Sports Net.
"(The players) embrace the challenge that is our 2010 football schedule, beginning with a very, very good Northern Illinois football team," said ISU head coach Paul Rhoads in his Monday news conference. "They are solid in every phase. Defensively they stop the run, on offense they run the ball extremely well."
The Huskies have gone just 1-4 against BCS opponents the last two seasons, knocking off the Big Ten's Purdue last year, but three of those losses have come by a combined 16 points.
"I feel like any time you put the uniform on, whether you play (at home) or at Iowa State or at Tennessee, you're preparing to be successful and win," said NIU head coach Jerry Kill. "I've seen over the last two years, for the most part, that when we play our non-conference opponents our kids just went out and played.
"We've had some success at times and haven't been successful at times, but we've been pretty darn close on about every game we've played non-conference-wise."
Still unsettled for the Huskies is who will be taking snaps under center tonight. Kill is expected to make a game-time decision between DeMarcus Grady, redshirt freshman Jordan Lynch and Chandler Harnish, last season's starter.
"You try to go into (a) game, you don't want to let a coordinator prepare anything different. Whoever it's going to be, we don't want to reveal that," said Kill. "We don't plan on playing three (quarterbacks) or anything to that nature."
With a schedule that features preseason top-10 opponents Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa and doubles as a sick joke, the Cyclones will need to pick up every so-called 'winnable' game put in front of them if they hope to return to a bowl game for the second consecutive season.
"It's absolutely crucial. Starting 1-0 adds to the credibility to what you've been doing for 29 (preseason) practice opportunities," said Rhoads. "You open up room for people scratching their head in your program by not winning and not finding early-season success.
"The outcome of this game is not going to make or break the year, but you'd much rather start in the win column than the loss."
An inexperienced defense for the Cyclones means the burden of churning out enough wins to send Iowa State back to the postseason will land on the shoulders of an offense that returns many of its key components, but finished dead last in points per game in the Big 12 last season.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman has one of the deepest stables of wide receivers Iowa State has seen in recent years as well his two top performers from last season - quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson - to run his spread attack.
Their first test comes against an NIU defense that ranked third in the MAC in both scoring and rushing defense in 2009.
"They're fast, they're athletic and they don't make a lot of mistakes," said Robinson. "They're very sound in what they do, so we're going to have to be sound in what we do and execute well."
Execution on a consistent basis will be paramount for the Cyclones this season because if anything is certain, it's that the Cyclones will have a small margin for error if they hope to be playing past November.