What's next for the Sam Houston State Bearkat football team?After the best football season in school history, going undefeated all the way to their first appearance in the Football Championship Subdivision national title game, that's a popular question in Huntsville and everywhere else where Bearkats hang out.
What will Sam Houston do for an encore? Could the Kats run the table again? Well, that will be much more difficult in 2012. That, is for sure.
The Bearkats will take on the role of road warriors as they pack their bags and get on the bus for eight of their regular-season games this fall, including five of seven Southland Conference contests and a pair of nonconference tilts at Baylor and Texas A&M.
With the start of spring football just a couple of weeks away, the Bearkats' 2012 schedule is set.
"We've upgraded from a competitive standpoint, playing A&M. I know a lot of fans in the past have always talked to us about upgrading the schedule," Sam Houston athletic director Bobby Williams said. "You can't say we haven't upgraded our schedule. It's all about how you view it. It's a unique schedule."
Following the season opener against Incarnate Word, which will be at Bowers Stadium on Sept. 8, the Bearkats won't return home until late October for a homecoming game against McNeese State. In Sam Houston's final regular-season game at Bowers Stadium, they will host Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 3.
Even though the Bearkats have just the three games at Bowers, there will be plenty of opportunities for fans to see coach Willie Fritz and his fun-to-watch bunch, an SHSU team that is expected to be near the top of the FCS preseason polls.
The Bearkats still have the Battle of the Piney Woods game at Reliant Stadium in Houston, where they've played the rivalry game the past two seasons, but a week prior to that grudge match, the Bearkats will be in Houston playing Texas Southern.
Following its Southland Conference opener at Central Arkansas on Sept. 22, Sam Houston will tackle Texas Southern on Sept. 29 at the brand-new BBVA Compass Stadium, which officially opens May 12 and will serve as the home for the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer.
"The profile of playing in Houston, that does a lot for the program in terms of recognition, but in this case, because they're close and they fit right in that pocket of where our alumni are. It does wonders to activate the alumni," said David Paitson, Sam Houston State's associate athletic director for external operations.
"We have 100,000 active alums and 75 percent are East Texas-based. One-third of our students come from Harris County, so these games are really important to us to do what we can do to get the alums engaged and get ourselves on the map a little bit. Over the last two years, that value has been proven to a great extent through the game at Reliant. That's 25,000 fans two years in a row.
"I have the sense that we have a ton of folks that came to that event - we don't have the statistics to prove that - that had not been a part of the program for years. We'll be playing in Houston against two high-profile schools, so I think that's going to be a really good thing."
The Bearkats also play at Texas A&M, their third game away from home an hour's drive from Huntsville.
Sam Houston also has road games at Baylor in Waco and a conference matchup at Lamar in Beaumont, a pair of games that take around two and a half hours to get to. That gives the Kats a total of six games either in Huntsville or approximately an hour away and seven within three hours or less.
"We've got really seven within two hours," Williams said. "We'll have three at Bowers where we'll have a distinct home-field advantage. The Piney Woods will be a neutral site, but it's as much of a home game as anything.
"Hopefully, the Texas Southern game would be that as well. If you really look at it, our fans who live in Houston, they're going to travel roughly the same distance to go to College Station as they would if they come here.
"It's not a hardship on the fan, I don't think. It's playing some very good competition. It's a little tougher road for our team, but we're used to playing in Houston. Really, it'll be five games that you could consider home-type games."
Last season, the Bearkats got the distinct advantage of having home-field advantage in the playoffs after dispatching their Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, New Mexico, which put them on the map in the FCS in terms of national recognition.
From there, the Bearkats steamrolled through the Southland, ensuring themselves a national seed and then sewing up the No. 1 spot with an impressive 36-14 win in the regular-season finale against Texas State.
This fall, after the conference portion of their schedule comes to an end, the Bearkats will wrap up the regular season at Texas A&M.
Playing arguably its toughest opponent at the end of the season did not affect Georgia Southern last year. The Eagles played Alabama in Tuscaloosa in its final regular season game and ended up reaching the national semifinals. Next fall, Georgia Southern completes the regular season with a game in Athens against the Georgia Bulldogs.
"The way I look at it, it's a little different. If it was a little earlier in the year, I think it would have more effect on it," Williams said. "Our major body of work, the 10 previous games, our position is going to be determined pretty much there. Now if we're a No. 4 seed and we lose to A&M, that could knock us out of the No. 4 seed. That's there.
"Who's to say that it wouldn't knock us out earlier in the year? What it really comes down to is how we do in conference, how we do in the FCS. That's just kind of the way it is.
"The team's excited about it. They're the ones that are going to play. If they're excited and feel like they have a chance, let's get behind them and go get 'em."