As a whirlwind season reaches its final chapter, one school is set to bring home its very first FCS National Championship.
For the other, a decades-long pursuit will continue, as the book is shut on an unprecedented spring campaign.
The Sam Houston Bearkats and South Dakota State Jackrabbits will square off Sunday afternoon in Frisco with a national title on the line. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Toyota Stadium, with ABC carrying the broadcast.
“This is the one where you get the gold ring,” Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said. “It's the one that is the ultimate goal for everyone who plays this sport. It's the one I talked about in my very first press conference at Rowan, my very first press conference at Delaware and my very first press conference here at Sam Houston.
“As I told the team, the changes we made after going to the playoffs five straight years weren't to get us to the championship. They were to go and win the championship.”
DISPELLING THE NARRATIVE
Even after beating all six of their regular-season opponents by an average of four touchdowns, the national perception of the Bearkats remained filled with questions of whether they could get it done against perennial powers in the postseason — a narrative fueled by blowout losses to James Madison and North Dakota State in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.
Sam Houston began to quiet the doubters after shutting down NDSU — winner of eight of the past nine FCS championships — in the quarterfinals, before picking off any remaining stragglers with a 21-point comeback win over No. 1 JMU last week. After shedding a reputation of coming up short in the postseason, the Bearkats will now seek one more program-shaping victory.
“There was always that question mark behind Sam Houston, with the bad losses late in the playoffs,” junior quarterback Eric Schmid said. “Going out and playing North Dakota State and James Madison and beating them put a better look on us, knowing that we're the real deal this year. We're just ready to do it one more time.”
The Bearkats will receive another sizable challenge, and arguably their biggest yet, on Sunday. South Dakota State boasts a top-15 defense, with All-American running back Pierre Strong and Missouri Valley Offensive Player of the Year Mark Gronowski — who has rushed for 567 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman quarterback — leading a dangerous rushing attack that has averaged over 230 yards per game.
ANOTHER NATIONAL AUDIENCE
After being relegated to ESPN3 in the first round of the playoffs, Sam Houston is set to play on national television for the third consecutive weekend.
Both teams’ viewing audience grew significantly last Saturday, with 706,000 tuning in to ABC to watch the Bearkats’ 21-point comeback against James Madison, and 520,000 watching SDSU’s blowout win over Delaware on ESPN. For comparison, 518,000 viewers tuned in for last year’s FCS semifinal broadcast on ESPN2.
Sam Houston will be appearing on ABC — which before this spring, hadn’t broadcast a Bearkat game since 1994 — for the second straight weekend.
“It's been great for our brand,” Keeler said. “FCS football has really gotten a lot of viewership this spring, and that's good, because it's really good football. It's a great level of football and it's very competitive, and it's really cool how they find a national champion. You have to go through trial-by-fire to be a national champion.”
Keeler — who will look to secure an FCS-record 24th playoff win on Sunday — is no stranger to FCS championship games, having led Delaware to the 2003 national title, with two other appearances in the final game of the FCS season. He’s not the only Bearkat with championship experience, either.
Senior defensive lineman Jahari Kay, a first-team All-American, won a junior college national title at Laney College before arriving in Huntsville. The Buck Buchanan Award finalist plans to use this experience to his advantage on Sunday.
“Coming into this game I feel very confident. I'm not nervous at all,” Kay said. “I'm just confident in what we're doing. I believe in our game plan, I believe in our defense and I believe in our offense. I just want to come in and make sure we execute well. If we execute well, I think we'll come out on top.”
Keeler notices some differences between this year’s Bearkats and the 2003 Delaware squad he led to a national title. Both teams, however, do share a similar trait in their perseverance.
After dominating the bulk of their Southland Conference schedule, Sam Houston has been heavily tested in the postseason, with their fourth game in a row against a top-10 team coming up this weekend. The Bearkats have thrived amid an array of challenges, winning each playoff game with a late defensive stop in their own territory.
“My 2003 national championship team won five games by less than a touchdown during the regular season, and I think that just built such character. Then we went on to just dominate the playoffs. It's a little bit different here,” Keeler said.
“I thought the Southland was really good this year, and we had a pretty good run. Now we've gotten up against these really challenging games and our players have persevered. I'm hoping the perseverance that we've gone through has really galvanized us, knowing that we're going to go through it on Sunday. I tell our kids all the time, you are going to face some adversity — these guys are really good. It's how you handle the adversity and react to it.”
The past two weeks in particular give the Bearkats confidence that they can handle whatever South Dakota State — which along with Sam Houston, has made a strong case as the most well-rounded team in the FCS — throws at them.
“Just the way we battle through adversity,” Schmid said. “The past two weeks we've had some big moments that showed we can fight through that, so our confidence is really high right now. We're ready to face another good opponent. There are going to be ups and downs, but we're going to fight through them like we always do.”