The Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota last season felt like a major victory to Iowa State, a program that's rarely had much to crow about over long, lean years.
Senior quarterback Austen Arnaud didn't spend much time celebrating.
Arnaud struggled with Iowa State's new spread offense, and he knew another average year wouldn't cut it in 2010. So shortly after returning from Arizona, Arnaud took it upon himself to study his play from all 13 games in 2009 and watch film of fellow Big 12 quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy — stars who obliterated various records playing in the spread.
It was a dramatic shift in focus for Arnaud, but one he felt he needed to make after a frustrating season.
"I wasn't happy with where I was. You know, the spread offense is a tough offense to learn," Arnaud said. "Todd Reesing, Chase Daniel, Colt McCoy, guys I've studied and watched how they've been some of the best passers college football has ever seen. I just want to be in that same sentence."
Arnaud threw 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2009. The touchdowns will have to go up and the picks will have to go down if the Cyclones are to surprise anyone again in 2010.
Iowa State's been picked to finish last in the Big 12 North, a familiar spot for the Cyclones despite a 7-6 mark last season. Iowa State has the potential to score points like few Cyclones teams in recent memory, but it's inexperienced on defense and faces a brutal schedule.
Iowa State plays three potential national title contenders in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas — all on the road. Their home slate includes a much-anticipated Big 12 finale against rival Nebraska and a date with Utah.
"They know that, by some folks, they've been rated as having the toughest schedule in all of Division I football," second-year coach Paul Rhoads said. "They also embrace that. If they didn't, we had the wrong kids in the program."
There's reason to be excited about Arnaud and the offense, even though the unit scored just 20.5 points a game last year.
The Cyclones are now in their second year of offensive coordinator Tom Herman's spread attack, which should help slow things down for Arnaud. He'll work behind an experienced and talented offensive line as well and running back Alexander Robinson could be one of the nation's better backs if he can stay healthy.
Receivers Jake Williams, Darius Darks and Sedrick Johnson are all back and so is Darius Reynolds, a talented junior college transfer who had just 13 catches for the Cyclones last season before blowing out his knee.
"Darius Reynolds gives us a playmaker," Rhoads said. "I'm talking about a guy capable of taking a 5-yard throw and turning it into a 55-yard gain or getting behind defenders for a 70-yard completion."
Iowa State's defense played better than expected last year, but the Cyclones bring back just five starters. Though the secondary is deep and talented, it won't look that way if a young front seven doesn't hold up. All three starting linebackers will be new and the defensive line is a question mark.
It looks as though the Cyclones might find themselves in a fair amount of classic Big 12 shootouts this season, so the onus is on Arnaud to make all that offseason work translate into production on Saturdays.
Arnaud said he's tweaked his throwing motion and worked to improve his footwork and accuracy, a sore point after he completed just 58.7 percent of his passes in 2009. But perhaps the most important change has been a mental one, and the coaching staff is hoping Arnaud's focus will rub off on his teammates.
"I think through the first four years, he always kind of ... got by on talent and just, 'Hey, I'll be good enough,'" Herman said. "And I think finally, hopefully, the light bulb has kicked in that just going through the motions isn't good enough to be a great quarterback in this league and in this system."