AMES - Nearly all the so-called surprise teams in the Big 12 in recent years were led by big-time quarterbacks who put their programs over the top.
Can Iowa State sophomore Sam Richardson be the next unknown to emerge as a star?
The Cyclones believe so - even though he's only thrown 79 career passes.
Iowa State thinks they've finally found a dual-threat playmaker in Richardson, a sophomore who will get his third career start on Saturday against Northern Iowa.
Of course, no one is ready to declare Richardson a program-changing talent along the lines of Robert Griffin III or Kansas State's Collin Klein just yet. But the Cyclones can't stop raving about their promising quarterback.
"The best quality that Sam is that he's always composed, he knows what's going on and he's aware," Iowa State senior running back Jeff Woody said. "He's got a good arm, and (the) dude can run. But the best thing Sam has got is between his ears, and that's something that instills confidence in the team because we know exactly what's going on."
Richardson's resume is limited to a three-game stretch that was both brilliant and inconclusive.
But that brief look at the end of 2012 was enough to convince coach Paul Rhoads and his staff that Richardson could be something special.
Richardson was buried on the depth chart nearly all season as the third-stringer. He only got a shot in mid-November because the coaching staff had become completely exasperated with co-starters Jared Barnett and Steele Jantz.
Richardson was put in during the third series against Kansas with bowl eligibility on the line. Richardson was a revelation, throwing for 250 yards and four touchdowns on 23 of 27 passing - albeit against one of the nation's worst defenses - in a 51-23 win.
Richardson wasn't nearly so spectacular in losses to West Virginia and Tulsa to close out the season. But Iowa State's loss to the Mountaineers came on a day when extremely gusty wind made any type of pass a risk, and Richardson succumbed to the flu after completing six of his first seven passes in a 31-17 Liberty Bowl loss to the Golden Hurricane.
Richardson threw for eight TDs against just one pick and also ran for 233 yards, averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per carry.
'He was too scared to worry about anything other than the snap count. He's come a long ways, I'll just say it that way. And the biggest area of improvement, I think, is his leadership and his grasp and his understanding of what we're doing," Rhoads said.
Richardson's hold on the starting job was furthered solidified when Barnett transferred to Illinois State. He's now had a spring and fall camp working with the rest of the starters after watching Jantz and Barnett split those opportunities for two years.
Though Richardson is a rather soft spoken underclassman, he said he's embraced the leadership role that every quarterback has to take.
"I've always been taught growing up to lead by example at first. And then, when you're leading, people kind of take that along with your words," Richardson said. "Being more vocal has just come naturally."
Rhoads, now in his fifth season, said earlier this month that the Cyclones feel as good about the quarterback position as they ever have heading into the season.
That's all because of Richardson, who has won over his teammates and coaches with his calm demeanor and ability to make plays.
"He's relaxed, he's poised out there, and a quarterback needs to be that type of guy. If you're going to throw accurate passes, if you're going to throw things on time, you're going to do it in that state. You're not going to do that tense," Rhoads said.