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Atop The Football Championship Subdivision Mountaintop, There's Only Room For One
One of the greatest thing in all of sports is that when it comes to winning championships, the amount of room at the top of the mountain is so minute that out of all the teams competing for a title, only one can say that they’re the best.
After navigating what is often a tough regular season filled with plenty of bumps in the road, no matter what sport, except in the Football Bowl Subdivision of course, you can witness firsthand what hurdles teams must overcome as they have to surviving playoff battles or tournament games in order to reach the pinnacle.
Once arriving at that spot and a playing for a national championship, you can look from sideline to sideline and see nearly every emotion under the sun being tested and pulled in an assortment of directions in an instant. Optimism, anxiety, jubilation and anguish, you name it.
As the clock ticks down to all zeros or the final putt or out is recorded, it’s clear as day as the victors erupt with euphoria in seeing all the hard work result in a championship, while those who came up short can only sit with long faces and watch what they envisioned happening for them.
The Bearkats certainly know the latter of the two circumstances extremely well after twice playing for the Football Championship Subdivision’s national title and coming up short, especially from having yet to enjoy the former.
Throughout the last two seasons, by far the best in the history of Sam Houston State’s football program, the Kats put themselves in elite company.
Following its undefeated regular season in the 2011 campaign and kept its winning ways all the way until the 2012 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game, Sam Houston proved it wasn’t a fluke this past season. Even after starting out the season 1-2 with a conference-opening loss to Central Arkansas, the Bearkats rattled off seven straight victories in must-win games to earn a second straight appearance in the FCS playoffs.
Though unseeded in the 20-team playoff bracket, the Bearkats found a way to beat all three Big Sky Conference champions Cal Poly, third-seeded Montana State and second-seeded Eastern Washington. The Kats were also able to do that into hostile environments in Bozeman, Mont., and Cheney, Wash., in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Easy to say, much tougher to pull off.
The Bearkats, who have put up an impressive 24-3 mark against FCS teams in the past two seasons, might have won a pair of national championships had they not twice run into North Dakota State in Frisco. As talented as the Kats have been the last two seasons, the Bison were just a bit better, which of course leaves Sam Houston as second-best. To have that distinction, there’s no shame in that.
“Proud of our guys, had a great season, hard to get here, and I talked to them in the locker room about we’ve got to find a way to get over the hump, so that’s something we’re going to be working on in the offseason,” Bearkats coach Willie Fritz in Saturday’s press conference following the second straight loss to North Dakota State in the FCS title game.
They’re not alone
What has transpired in Frisco the past two years, while it is certainly painful to recall for the Bearkats, is not unique to just Sam Houston, though.
Throughout the 35 year history of the FCS national championship, there have been several teams that have gotten multiple opportunities at the title but came away empty-handed.
Like Sam Houston’s first time around, McNeese State came a few plays short of a championship in a 10-9 loss to Youngstown State in the 1997 game and then lost 34-14 to Western Kentucky in 2002. The Cowboys have yet to reach the FCS championship game since then.
Marshall is another team that was on the verge of winning a national championship and they, too, had to settle for a runner-up finish in 1987 (43-42 loss to Northeast Louisiana) and 1991 (25-17 loss to Youngstown State). The Thundering Herd did finally break through in 1992 as they won their rematch against Youngstown State 31-28. A few years later, Marshall fell in the title game in 1993 (17-5 loss to Youngstown State) and in 1995 (22-20 loss to Montana) before winning the title in 1996 (49-29 victory over Montana) in its final season at the FCS level.
As heralded a program as there is in the FCS, Montana has been through this before as well. After winning their second national championship in 2001 (13-6 victory over Furman), the Grizzlies came up short in 2004 (31-21 loss to James Madison), 2008 (24-7 loss to Richmond) and 2009 (23-21 loss to Villanova).
Let’s put it into perspective
There’s two schools of thought when looking at the state of the Bearkats football program: Either the Kats have missed their window for a championship or this is just the beginning of Sam Houston becoming an FCS powerhouse like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State or Montana.
Consider that for years the Bearkats were a marginally average team in the Southland Conference and made the playoffs every few years thanks in large part to the revolving door of transfer quarterbacks from FBS programs for just one season. Fritz takes over the program and in less than three years time, the Bearkats have developed consistency and experience in several positions which has resulted in several SHSU career records broken, boast one of the top units on offense and defense with two consecutive conference titles and have also proven to be one of the top teams in the FCS.
The fact that the Kats have qualified for the championship game in multiple years is quite a testament since only 13 programs — 11 of which still compete in the FCS — can boast that accomplishment.
Where do the Bearkats go from here?
The first item on the agenda is to bring in another strong recruiting class with national signing day a little more than four weeks away (Feb. 6). Sam Houston brought in plenty of quality recruits last year off of its first trip to the FCS national championship game and it’ll be evident soon enough if the Bearkats coaching staff can use the momentum from another lengthy playoff run to bring even more quality players to Huntsville.
Going forward, the Bearkats do have some question marks to fill, especially on defense.
Fritz and his defensive coaches (coordinator and linebackers coach Scott Stoker, defensive line coach Johnny Jernigan and secondary coach Ben Beasley) will have to find a way to plug up holes left by starters.
On the defensive line, the Kats will bring back starting ends Andrew Weaver and Jarrett Brown and starting tackle Gary Lorance, but will need to replace tackle J.T. Cleveland. Senior Forbes Baggett, who saw plenty of playing time the last two seasons, and Diamonte Wheeler look to step into that role on the interior of the defensive line.
At linebacker, Sam Houston appears like it will have more depth than in 2012 as Eric Fieilo, who medically redshirted this season after suffering an injury in the season opener against Incarnate Word, and Jesse Beauchamp will enter their senior seasons to make up for the loss of the hard-hitting Darius Taylor. Due to the injury to Fieilo, sophomore Jeremy Jackson saw plenty of action this season. Also possibly stepping in to get some playing time could be Brandon Durant, a transfer from Missouri, Bridge Blount, Tristan Eche and Nigel Robertson.
The secondary is where the Bearkats will be hit the hardest by outgoing seniors. No longer will Sam Houston have cornerback Dax Swanson, the school’s all-time leader in interceptions with 14, and safeties Robert Shaw, Darnell Taylor, Kenneth Jenkins and Mike Littleton. Senior DeAntrey Loche and sophomore Shelby Davis look to compete for one of the starting cornerback spots; Bookie Sneed returns for his senior season at cornerback. Desmond Fite, Michael Wade and Jarell Crenshaw are a few names to be on the lookout for in those safety positions.
Special teams is also an area that needs some attention as the Kats will lose four-year kicker Miguel Antonio and punter Matt Foster as well as kick and punt returner Trey Diller.
Offensively, there won’t be much dropoff. Nearly every starter on that side of the ball will return for a unit that ranked second in scoring offense (40 points per game) and sacks allowed (0.40 per game) and seventh in rushing offense (268.3 per game).
The Sam Houston offense has a few key losses it needs to address as the Kats won’t have center Chris Rogers, tackles Riley Smith and Kaleb Hopson, tight end T.J. Jones or Diller.
The Bearkats will have plenty of options at wide receiver with seniors Richard Sincere and a healthy Torrance Williams, junior Chance Nelson and sophomores Brandon Wilkerson and Stephen Williams.
Running back will again be a strength for the Kats with Timothy Flanders, Keshawn Hill, Ryan Williams — if he can recover from his hip injury — and Ridgeway Frank.
If Sam Houston can shore up on the offensive line and at tight end, the Bearkats can improve and become even more explosive as one of the best offenses in the FCS.
By Gene Schallenberg, Huntsville Item