AMES - The local excitement for Iowa State appears to be peaking, even if national expectations are modest at best.
The Cyclones could see much of that hometown buzz dissipate with a poor showing against Northern Iowa.
Iowa State will open its fifth season under fan favorite Paul Rhoads on Saturday at a sold-out Jack Trice Stadium. The matchup against the FCS Panthers is expected to be the first of four consecutive packed houses for the Cyclones - even though they're picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 yet again.
Rhoads knows the rest of the country won't start buying into his program the way the folks in Ames have until they crack the three-win plateau in conference play.
"That starts and probably ends with more victories in the league. I think we're recognized by most as a team that plays smart, a team that probably overachieves. But you've got to go beyond overachieving. You've got to start increasing your level of play, your talent base and so forth and win more games than you're losing in league play," Rhoads said. "When that happens, I think the vision of our program will change from a nation standpoint."
The Cyclones and their fans also know better than to overlook Northern Iowa. The Panthers beat Iowa State in 2007 and nearly did it again in 2011.
Northern Iowa at Iowa State
Tonight, 7 p.m.
Jack Trice Stadium, Ames
TV: Cyclones.tv (MC22)
With that in mind, here are five things to watch out for as the Cyclones and Panthers renew acquaintances:
SAM THE MAN
Iowa State's Sam Richardson will get his third career start - and his first after a full offseason working as the No. 1 quarterback. Richardson threw eight TDs against just one interception in 2012 and also ran for nearly six yards a carry. The coaching staff and his teammates are high on Richardson's potential after a promising end to 2012. "The biggest area of improvement is in his leadership," Rhoads said.
The Panthers have a highly-touted sophomore quarterback of their own in Sawyer Kollmorgen. He threw for 222.7 yards a game last season and was a rare bright spot for a program that stumbled to a rare sub.-500 record. Kollmorgen was the freshman of the year in the Missouri Valley Conference and is expected to be one of the top players in all of FCS in 2013. "He deserves all the preseason accolades he's received," Rhoads said of Kollmorgen. "Really showed great leadership skills as a young player in 2012."
The Cyclones had five running backs listed on their first depth chart of the regular season, and each of them could log carries against Northern Iowa. Seniors James White and Shontrelle Johnson will likely split most of the playing time, but Iowa State will also want to see junior college transfer Aaron Wimberly in game action for the first time.
Northern Iowa took a major step back in 2012, finishing 5-6. But the Panthers have finished in the Top 25 of the FCS 10 times in the past 12 seasons and have won at least 10 games six times since 2001. Led by Kollmorgen and 12 other returning starters, Northern Iowa will look to return to the playoffs for the 17th time. "It's a new season and a new day," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said.
NEW D FOR ISU
This will mark the first time in years that Iowa State won't have star linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein keying their defense. The Cyclones will have six new starters, with Jeremiah George taking over as the leader of the unit and 6-foot-7 end David Irving moving over to tackle. Iowa State is experienced in the secondary, but the defensive backs could be limited if a rebuilt line and linebacker corps struggle.
"I think this team, from August 31 to the end of the season, will probably grow more than any other team we've had. How far? We'll find out," Rhoads said.