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Last season was one most Iowa State fans would prefer to forget. Head coach Paul Rhoads’ seat is now starting to smoke, and if he’s to see another year in Ames, they need to show improvement on the field.

The Cyclones should be improved, however there aren’t many places you can point to on the Big 12 schedule and say, ‘They could win that one’. Non-conference wins are going to be essential if they want any chance to be bowl eligible by the end of the year. The good news is all three games are winnable, but it’s not going to be easy.

NORTHERN IOWA

First up, Northern Iowa comes to Ames, and Cyclones fans are hoping it goes better than the last time. Two years ago the Panthers, a FCS team, embarrassed the Cyclones inside Jack Trice stadium.

The Panthers aren’t going to make things easy either. They may not be in the FBS, but they have plenty of help from former power five conference players. Defensive backs Brandon Napoleon from West Virginia and DJ Singleton Jr. from Nebraska, along with running back Savon Huggins from Rutgers will make their UNI debut this season.

On offense, the Panthers have some depth at receiver, but will be starting a new redshirt freshman at QB. Defense is where they shine though. With six preseason All-Americans, it’s an experienced unit.

They don’t only have the talent to return to the FCS Playoff this year, but if the Cyclones aren’t ready, it could be third embarrassing loss to a FCS team in back-to-back-to-back seasons. Not to mention a terrible way to christen the newly renovated stadium.

IOWA

The Hawkeyes are looking for payback after the Cyclones got the best of them last year in Iowa City with a last second field. It was one of only two wins Iowa State had all year, but there isn’t much better than stealing a rivalry game on the road.

If the Hawkeyes want the win they have some holes to fill. They’re without their leading receiver, running back, and starting QB from last year. However, like Northern Iowa,  their strength is clearly on the defensive side of the ball. They ranked 22nd in total defense last season, and could improve upon that in 2015. Returning defensive end Drew Ott led the team in sacks, and the back seven will be full of sophomores and juniors who all have played significant game minutes.

The Hawkeyes want revenge, but a win here could give Paul Rhoads some breathing room for the rest of the season. This game should tell us a lot about both teams, but if things don’t go Iowa State’s way, it could be the beginning of the end for coach Rhoads.

TOLEDO

Down 13-9 at halftime to Toledo last season, Sam Richardson and the Cyclones battled back to pull off their second (and last) victory for 2014.

The Rockets went on to have a successful season by finishing second in the MAC, and this year they’re looking to win the conference. Not before they get a chance for some retribution with the Cyclones though.

Unlike Iowa State’s first two opponents, Toledo butters their bread with a high-powered offense. The Cyclones will have their hands full with Toledo’s speed spread offense. Ranked the 15th best overall offense last season, the Rockets started three different quarterbacks thanks to injury. That’s kind of incredible. All three of those QB’s return for 2015. They also return their top 3 running backs and top 2 receivers.

Iowa State will be coming off a big game against their in-state rival, and if Toledo can get some help from their defense, they might just be too much for the Cyclones to handle.

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