AMES - The key to the upcoming season couldn't be any clearer for Iowa State.
The defense will need to play much better than it did a year ago for the Cyclones to have any hope of escaping the Big 12 basement.
For all the talk about new coordinator Mark Mangino's revamped offense, it's Iowa State's defense that should be under the heaviest scrutiny. The Cyclones allowed 36 points a game last season - ranking 109th out of 125 Bowl Subdivision teams - and surrendered at least 41 points five times in nine league games.
Iowa State knows that can't happen again this season, which starts on Saturday at home against defending FCS champion North Dakota State.
"Am I happier than I was a year ago at this point with what I saw on the practice field? Yes, I am. But until we get out there and start playing other folks, we've got areas that are a concern for us," coach Paul Rhoads said of his defense.
It's hard to glean too much into the importance of returning starters when a unit struggled as much as Iowa State's defense did in 2013.
Still, the Cyclones have some experienced guys to count on.
Iowa State has a pair of starters back to lead the program's biggest question mark: defensive line. Right end Cory Morrissey is a potential All-Big 12 player after a promising season in 2013, and senior Brandon Jensen has reclaimed his starting spot at tackle after briefly quitting the team in the offseason.
Sophomore Mitchell Meyers has won the starting job at left end, and Devlyn Cousin will open the season at nose tackle.
"The interior linemen, they've really matured. They've stepped up and made great plays during camp," Morrissey said. "We're going to make some plays this year."
The Cyclones have plenty of linebackers.
But many of them haven't played much beyond special teams.
Redshirt freshman Alton Meeks will be Iowa State's middle linebacker. Unheralded former walk-on Drake Ferch beat out senior Jared Brackens for the strong-side starting job, and senior Jevohn Miller will get the nod over sophomore Luke Knott on Saturday.
Rhoads is confident that Meeks and his inexperienced backups at middle linebacker, Kane Seeley and junior college transfer Jordan Harris, will be able to handle the communication responsibilities inherent to the position.
"They made the rights and lefts and got us in the right calls," Rhoads said. "We'll have 11 guys out there lined up right for a high percentage of the time. I'm confident about that."
Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson - who is unrelated to Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson - will start. Kenneth Lynn and rising senior Matt Thomas will back them up. The safeties will be a pair of new starters: T.J. Mutcherson and Kamari Cotton-Moyer.
"The corners have played like veteran players," Rhoads said. "The safeties have looked like guys that have not yet played in the Big 12."
The idea that Iowa State might have to outscore teams to win took shape in the offseason with the addition of Mangino.
But if the Cyclones can match an improved offense with a defense capable of making stops, they could easily outperform expectations that pegged them ninth in the Big 12 preseason poll.
"We've got unproven areas. We've got to get out there and start mixing it up with other folks, and it will quickly unfold to see if we are improved, markedly improved, or where we sit defensively," Rhoads said.