Championship Bound: Oh So Wrong to Doubt Sam Houston State


The Southland Conference last placed a team in the Football Championship Subdivision title game in 2002, when it was still known as Division I-AA. Since the rebranding in 2006 and through 2010, the conference was 1-6 in playoff appearances with disadvantages of 31-6, 44-15, 31-13, 49-13, 51-0 and 54-24. Postseason success has been difficult for the Southland to come by, and though Sam Houston State returned 20 starters from a team that finished last season strong, I had my reservations buying into the overall No. 1 seed as the program to rectify that.

After all, SHSU was picked fourth and fifth in the SLC pre-season polls. Yet with each week, the Bearkats defied precedent and expectation. Team after team around the FCS lost, but not SHSU. The Bearkats finished the regular season 11-0, the sole unbeaten. But it was all too easy for skeptics such as myself to dismiss their accomplishments.

Yeah, Sam Houston beat an FBS team but it was New Mexico.

11-0 is nice, but the Southland’s not the CAA, Big Sky or SoCon.

Are all those points SHSU is scoring the result of playing weak defenses?

SHSU is located in a part of the nation famous for barbecue cuisine, but the tastiest dish served in Huntsville today is crow. My bib’s tied on tightly and napkin’s on the lap. The Bearkats demonstrated in resounding fashion that 13, now 14-0 was not achieved with smoke-and-mirrors. The SLC champions are Frisco-bound, and left no doubt about it.

Through the first half of Friday’s primetime affair with perennial FCS power Montana, a Bearkat defense ranked atop the nation stifled the Grizzlies’ offense that was scoring 35 points per game. Montana’s top rusher was quarterback Jordan Johnson with 64 yards. But UM’s second leading rusher? Fourteen yards.

As good as SHSU has been stopping the rush this season — opponents average less than 70 yards per game — the Bearkats are equally effective rushing themselves. Willie Fritz’s offense is innovative. Plenty of teams run the ball well, like fellow semifinalist Georgia Southern. But GSU was slowed today vs. North Dakota State, the result of preparation and a followed-to-a-T gameplan. SHSU shows such varied looks, from a shotgun option to a Wing-T, defenses must prepare for two distinctly different looks.

Sophomore quarterback Brian Bell plays with gravitas beyond his years. He commands the option like it’s second nature, but looks equally comfortable unleashing passes over a thin secondary. That’s such a crucial weapon in the repertoire, set up with what has proven to be the very best rushing attack in the FCS.

A very good Montana defense struggled adjusting, and the result was 383 Bearkat rushing yards. It didn’t hurt that Fritz has Tim Flanders, though, who racked up 287 of those. Like The Simpsons neighbor with whom he shares a last name, everyone loves Flanders — except defensive coordinators.

Credit is certainly due the Grizzlies, who fell behind three touchdowns and could have given up. Robin Pflugrad proved his coaching mettle, adjusting at halftime and having his Griz ready for a dogfight. But in Montana bridging the gap, SHSU did even more to make a believe of this former skeptic.

As a battle-tested program whittled down the deficit, a team like SHSU that has never been on the big stage could have easily waved the white flag. 13-1, a conference championship, the semifinals: that’s a very nice run. But pressure exhibits a team’s true character, and under pressure the ‘Kats made some championship caliber plays.

Fritz’s call for a fourth down conversion, rather than punt and give UM another possession was celebrated. It was gutsy, it was well-executed. In other words, it was the opposite of so many late game decisions a team makes when momentum is against it. Less discussed and equally significant was Flanders’ falling down on a rush toward the sideline. His option to drop to the turf kept the clock running, preventing UM defenders from knocking him out-of-bounds to stop the clock. Think that’s a minor thing? Ask a Chicago Bear fan how minor it is.

Sam Houston State is for real. There’s no more room for skepticism, and there could be no more emphatic punctuation on the Bearkats’ statement than a championship.