AMES, Iowa — It's been 13 seasons since Iowa State won its Big 12 opener.
If the Cyclones can't end that drought this weekend, their hopes for a comeback season could be over.
Iowa State (1-2) should feel somewhat confident on Saturday. The Cyclones will be at home, are coming off a bye and will be hosting woeful Kansas (0-3), which is second to last among Power Five teams in total defense.
It's a game the Cyclones know they can't afford to lose, not with Texas Tech, No. 4 TCU and No. 5 Baylor on deck in October.
"At 1-2, we have an awareness of reality, and that's that we've played three really good teams," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "We've got a group of young men that are anxious to start Big 12 play, and they showed that last week in how they prepared."
The Cyclones have shown plenty of progress after winning just twice in 2014. Iowa State's defense, which was among the nation's worst last season, has looked much more competent so far. The Cyclones are allowing just 22.7 points and 362 yards a game, both of which are better than the national average.
The difference for Iowa State has been largely tied to the emergence of key junior college transfers.
Junior nose guard Demond Tucker has helped the Cyclones transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front without much trouble, and middle linebacker Jordan Harris has stabilized what had been a shaky unit.
The real revelation has been senior end Dale Pierson. Nicknamed the "Sack Mamba," Pierson is second nationally with 1.7 sacks per game, and he's got 15 tackles on just 125 snaps.
"We know we're a much improved football team from a year ago. But this Saturday gives us an opportunity to show that and put something in the win column," Rhoads said.
Iowa State's offense could use a few guys to emerge like Pierson has. At least the Cyclones might have finally found a running back in freshman Mike Warren, who rushed for 126 yards in a 30-23 double overtime loss at Toledo.
Warren, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, was moved to the top of the depth chart Monday after sharing space with Tyler Brown and Joshua Thomas.
"It was a process. I was thinking a lot, and normally when I think a lot I tend to forget some things. I just went out there and — I was just playing football," Warren said.
Iowa State's last win in a conference opener came against the Jayhawks all the way back in 2002, when the Cyclones blasted Kansas 45-3.
A similar result would give Iowa State some much-needed confidence as the schedule gets tougher. A loss would be a blow for a program that would like to avenge a 20-point defeat at Kansas a year ago.
"We're not worried about that. We're a whole different football team than last year," Harris said. "Everybody wasn't positive last year like we are this year. I think everybody last year pretty much knew how the rest of the season was going to go (after losing to Kansas). But this year, we know the sky's the limit."