Des Moinse, Iowa It's one thing to field a good football team, another to put together a good program.
Iowa State is making progress on the program part, though the Cyclones aren't there yet. The hangup is trying to do it in a league as strong as the Big 12.
"It's unbelievable," Iowa State coach Dan McCarney said Monday. "The great thing is more and more of the country is understanding and realizing what we have in the Big 12.
"I'm not trying to run for senator and get a lot of votes. I'm telling it like it is. This conference is the best in the country."
Last year, the Big 12 produced the national champion, Oklahoma.
This year, three Big 12 teams are ranked in the Top Ten: Oklahoma at No. 2, Nebraska at No. 3 and Texas at No. 9.
Colorado is 14th and Texas A&M; and Kansas State were ranked earlier.
Competing against schools such as that makes it tough on Iowa State, which does not have a rich football tradition.
"There's tremendous speed in this conference and you see a big, physical, strong offensive line every week," McCarney said.
"No matter who you're playing, they've got lines that average 320 pounds, 325. There's tremendous playmakers at running back and quarterback and some of the best receivers in America are in the Big 12.
"And the defensive speed in the Big 12 is just phenomenal. Everybody's got guys who can run."
All of which has McCarney feeling good about what he's accomplished the last couple of years.
Iowa State takes a 4-1 record into Saturday's home game with Oklahoma State. The Cyclones have won 13 of 17 games since the start of the 2000 season and have won seven of their last 10 conference games.
"We're taking steps," McCarney said. "That's very much a motivator for all of us in the program. As you know, not much success has been achieved here much less sustained.
"We've got a long way to go, a lot of major challenges. But we feel like we're making progress, that we leave the office every night with a better program than when we got here in the morning."
A key is Iowa State winning close games.
The Cyclones batted down a pass in the end zone with 3 seconds left to secure a 20-14 victory at Missouri last Saturday.
Earlier, the offense ran off the last 51/2 minutes of the game in beating Ohio 31-28.
Last year, Iowa State beat Oklahoma State 33-26 by scoring a touchdown with 18 seconds left and the Cyclones made key defensive plays in a 35-27 victory over Colorado.
"We sure don't lead the nation, but those are sure steps in the right direction," McCarney said. "You just keep building on it. We do have a lot of new faces playing, but there are no rookies anymore. There are no young teams when you're playing in the middle of the Big 12 season."