AMES - The Big 12 is as unsettled as ever heading into 2013, with more than half the league earning at least one first-place vote in a preseason poll.
Except, of course, for Iowa State.
Once again, expectations are fairly low for the Cyclones.
Iowa State, which finished 6-7 and 3-6 in the Big 12 in 2012, has been picked ninth in the 10-team conference.
The Cyclones need to replace at least 11 starters on offense and defense and are highly unsettled at defensive line and wide receiver heading into fall camp, which began on Monday.
Iowa State opens its fifth season under coach Paul Rhoads against Northern Iowa on Aug. 31.
"Competition is a good thing. It creates maybe the appetite necessary for the improvement to take place," Rhoads said.
Iowa State has often had trouble cobbling together consistent defensive lines. It's an issue that's plagued the Cyclones all the way back to the days of the Big 8.
Though the Cyclones have just one true starter back in senior end Willie Scott, there appears to be more than enough depth for defensive coordinator Wally Burnham to work with.
Iowa State has three 300-pounders inside with Brandon Jensen, senior Walter Woods and junior college transfer Rodney Coe - who once committed to rival Iowa as a running back before bulking up considerably.
The Cyclones are hoping junior Cory Morrissey can take over at right end, as he's listed ahead of 6-foot-7, 272-pound David Irving and Nick Kron, the nephew of former New England Patriots star Ted Johnson.
Iowa State has a dozen players listed on its defensive line depth chart at the outset of camp. Given the hectic pace of play in the Big 12, it may stay that way all season.
"We saw marked improvement in the offseason," Rhoads said. "I saw big athletes become better football players from the end of spring practice to the end of fall camp based on the work they put it. That's encouraging."
It's a good thing the Cyclones have six running backs in contention for carries.
Their passing game is a major question mark with the opener less than a month away.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Richardson is the known quantity among the group - and he's started just twice in his career.
Iowa State lost its top three receivers from a year ago. Junior Jarvis West's 31 catches in 2012 rank first among the returning wideouts, and five underclassmen are among those competing for significant playing time.
The Cyclones have a legitimate red zone threat in senior tight end Ernst Brun, and sophomore Quenton Bundrage displayed his speed during Monday's opening practice when he broke free for a long TD pass from Richardson.
But some of the younger wide receivers are going to have to emerge during camp - and Rhoads said they've got to get the basics down before they can even hope to see the field.
"A ball is thrown to you, you've got to catch it. I'm not talking about the great catch. I'm not talking about the one behind you. I'm talking about every ball thrown that's catchable, you've got to make that catch.
"Secondly, we've got to learn to run all our routes hard. We're not fast enough, especially against the defenses that we're going to face, to run routes at three-quarters speed and be slick and think we're going to be open when the rush is bearing on our offensive line and our quarterback," Rhoads said.
The Cyclones have questions to answer at every position group, though the defensive front four and the offense edge appear to be the most pressing right now.
Still, Rhoads is encouraged about the program's raw talent.
"We've got a lot of youth and inexperience everywhere," Rhoads said. "We've got the least amount of starters returning of any Big 12 squad. But I'd rather start with athleticism and speed and try and bring that inexperience along as we go that slow and plod our way there. Because that doesn't happen in this league."