AMES, Iowa (AP) — The only Football Championship Subdivision opponent on Iowa State's schedule happens to be the three-time defending national champion that opens the season ranked No. 1.
Even the so-called easy ones aren't easy for the Cyclones.
Iowa State will begin its sixth season under Paul Rhoads at home on Saturday against North Dakota State, which has won 24 straight games. The Bison have also won their last three on the road against power conference opponents, including a win at Kansas State in 2013.
North Dakota State isn't the same team that destroyed Towson in last year's FCS title game. The Bison lost head coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming, and quarterback Brock Jensen is gone after winning 47 games. North Dakota State has just 10 starters back overall, including six on defense.
"I guess when the lights come on Saturday we'll find out how well they've progressed," first-year coach Chris Klieman said. "We know we've got a big challenge ahead of us."
Iowa State will also sport a new look after bottoming out at 3-9 last season. Former Kansas coach Mark Mangino has been hired to retool the offense, which will be led by a healthy Sam Richardson at quarterback. The Cyclones have 11 starters back on that side of the ball and could easily surpass the lowly 24.8 points a game they scored in 2013.
Here are the main story lines going into the season opener for both teams:
RICHARDSON READY: Richardson is a junior with 299 career passes and 19 touchdowns. But Saturday could be the first time he'll get to play while fully healthy, with a week of practice reps as the starter and under normal conditions. Richardson's best performance was his first one, when threw four TDs in a relief appearance against Kansas in 2012. He struggled in terrible weather against West Virginia and was sick for a bowl loss to Rutgers. Last season, he hurt his ankle in the opener and was never the same. "It feels great being 100 percent," Richardson said of the opener. "I don't like making excuses for plays with injuries and all that. But obviously it was a frustrating thing to go through."
WENTZ: Jensen's replacement will be Carson Wentz, a backup during the program's last two national title runs. The 6-foot-6 Wentz completed 34 of 46 passes in relief of Jensen, and he had pair of TD passes in just 10 attempts in a recent intrasquad scrimmage. "Even as a staff over the last few years, we've always said that if something were to happen to Brock we feel like Carson is a very capable guy that could continue to lead us," Klieman said. "We're excited about what he can do."
CYCLONES D: Iowa State will have six new starters on defense, a unit that ranked among the worst in the Big 12 a year ago. The Cyclones appear especially vulnerable up the middle, with newcomers at tackle, middle linebacker and safety. "We got areas that are concerns for us, with defensive tackles being right at the top of the list. Unproven (middle) linebackers added to that list, and a group of safeties that hasn't played a snap of defense," coach Paul Rhoads said.
SKILLED BISON: North Dakota State has two of the more talented skill position players in all of FCS in running back John Crockett and wide receiver Zach Vraa. Crockett rushed for 1,277 yards last season, on 6.7 yards per carry, and Vraa had 67 receptions and 15 touchdowns.
LAZARD'S DEBUT: Iowa State freshman wide receiver Allen Lazard is among the most hyped recruits in school history, and he showed why with an impressive fall camp. Lazard is listed as a second-stringer for the opener, but Rhoads said that Lazard will be targeted against the Bison.
Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP