Is it time for ISU to take the next step?

Paul Rhoads remembers well what life was like early on in his tenure at Iowa State.

"Every snap there were 11 guys getting coached on where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there and how they were supposed to be there," the Cyclones coach said.

Better results followed Rhoads' arrival, despite the sometimes remedial education in practice. The Cyclones reached bowl games in two of the past three seasons, just missing a third in 2010 after an overtime loss to Nebraska.

Entering 2012, the odds are against Iowa State reaching a bowl game for a third time under Rhoads, but he's trumpeted all offseason that this is his best team. Fall training camp illustrated why he believed it.

It was "different," he said.

"It was a football team that understood how to train, how to practice, how to work, whether it was in the meeting room or walk-throughs or on the practice field. I’m very encouraged by that," he said.

He added: "There’s a lot of things in the past three years that we’ve really had to coach or maybe even overcoach, that we’re not having to spend time on anymore. We’re a veteran football team who understands what we’re doing offensively and defensively.

"We have a level of maturity about us that I hadn’t experienced in the first three years."

Iowa State will get a chance to start the season with the best win of any Big 12 team. The Cyclones host Conference USA member Tulsa, but are 1.5-point underdogs.

"We’re not the ones that were 7-0 late in the season in a conference schedule," Rhoads said. "We’ve got all kinds of respect for Tulsa and their football program."

The fourth year under Rhoads has been all about the program taking the step beyond sneaking into bowl games and being near the bottom of the Big 12 standings.

Rhoads points to the way his players are coached these days as proof that the next step has arrived in Ames.

"Now, they’re getting [the basics] done on their own, it allows you to start coaching the little things. 'If you’d have flipped your hips here and then done this a little bit sooner or this this way, you’d become more efficient.'" Rhoads said. "When you’re able to coach those little things, the technique things, the things you coach a guy who gets the basics, then you start becoming a better football team."