"We have already brought it up and (our players) know it's out there," coach Paul Rhoads said. "They know what the challenge is and that they have been ranked by some to have the toughest schedule in Division I football."
The Cyclones are coming off an Insight bowl win against Minnesota and return a solid nucleus on each side of the ball along with several players that saw significant time off the bench in 2009.
Rhoads said this is an exciting time for the program.
"The reason for that is the improvement that has taken place in our program in the last 19 months," Rhoads said. "We have a group of improved players, and by the end of August, we have to make sure we have an improved football team."
The season opens on Thursday, September 2, with a game against preseason MAC favorite Northern Illinois. The Cyclones the travel to Iowa City the following week for their annual rivalry game with Iowa. The game with Northern Illinois is made even tougher by the fact that starting safety David Sims is suspended for that game.
With conference expansion looming next fall, the schedule could possibly include another conference game and that rivalry game could fall by the wayside.
Rhoads does not think that will happen, though.
"There is not a person in this state that doesn't enjoy that week and that competition that takes place in that type of rivalry," Rhoads said. "The powers that be will decide that as it moves forward, however."
The opening slate precedes the toughest part of the schedule, which could come during mid-October and early-November. In a five-week stretch, Iowa State plays a team coming off of a bowl win in Utah, then plays two consecutive road games against top-10 teams in Oklahoma and Texas.
After returning home for the homecoming game against Kansas, the Cyclones will host a Nebraska team that is also ranked in the preseason top-10 and favored to win the Big 12 North.
"They are embracing this and if they don't we have the wrong kids in our program," Rhoads said. "They are excited for the challenge and will prepare to play those games no matter what the situation is."
Running back Alexander Robinson said this is a chance for the team to show the nation how good it is.
"A lot of people refer to it as a challenge; we are approaching it as a opportunity," Robinson said. "We are trying to show the nation what this program is about and trying to gain respect for the program."
The schedule may have been a reason why Iowa State was picked to finish last in the Big 12 North by the media.
"That's what other people think and you take it with a grain of salt," safety Michael O'Connell said. "All we can control is getting better every day."