After running roughshod through the Southland Conference last fall, winning every league contest by at least three touchdowns, the Sam Houston State Bearkats were tabbed by the coaches in the league as the overwhelming favorite to repeat as champs in 2012.
Sam Houston, which went 14-1 last fall and reached the NCAA National Championship Game, got the maximum number of first-place votes and points in the Southland's 2012 preseason coaches' poll, which was released Tuesday at the conference's Football Media Day at L'Auberge du Lac Casino and Resort.
"I think this is a season of great anticipation for us," Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz said Tuesday afternoon. "We've got so many guys back. It was a fantastic run (last season). The challenge for me as a head coach is to bring the guys back to Earth to get us back to doing what we were last season, and that's because of a lot of hard work and taking it one game at a time."
Throughout the summer, the Bearkats received a host of accolades, including All-American nods and three players being named to watch lists for the prestigious Walter Payton and Buck Buchanan Awards.
According to several college football publications, the Kats, whose run to the Football Championship Subdivision national title game in January left an obvious impression, were at the top of Lindy's Sports and Athlon Sports preseason FCS top 25 polls. When the Sports Network Top 25 poll comes out next month, Sam Houston may very well be at the top of that one as well.
In regards to the Southland Conference, the Bearkats, who return nearly every starter and have plenty of reserves who put in minutes and racked numbers similar to starters, have everything on paper to make another dominant run through the conference and to storm through the playoffs again.
While they acknowledged it's nice to have the respect in their conference and around the country, the Kats know that it won't matter much once the season kicks off.
"Every team that's No. 1 is going to have pressure on them. Everybody's coming for you," Bearkats senior safety Kenneth Jenkins said Tuesday. "Last year, we were picked No. 4 (in the Southland) and we ended up winning (the conference championship).
"It doesn't really mean anything. It's a great honor. It feels different to be on top, which we deserve. As a team, we look at it as motivation. We need to be better than last year. The teams in our conference, even though we blew them out, they had good athletes all the way around. Those teams are good."
With Sam Houston tabbed as the top dog, there are many others in the league looking to knock the Kats from the mountaintop. Of those expected to contend for the title, the one that coaches feel have the best chance is Stephen F. Austin, which received one first-place vote due to the fact that coaches can't vote for their own team.
In each of the last three years, the winner of the Battle of the Piney Woods between the Bearkats and Lumberjacks went on to win the Southland championship, so that coupled with the fact that the two heated rivals head into the season as the top two teams to beat puts even added emphasis on the grudge match that will be held at Reliant Stadium in Houston for a third straight season.
The Lumberjacks rolled past Sam Houston 42-3 in 2009. Then in 2010, Stephen F. Austin edged the Bearkats 31-28, and last October, Sam Houston routed the Lumberjacks 45-10.
"I bet the (Houston) Texans and Lone Star Sports are just excited to no end to know that they have the national championship team, Southland Conference champion from the past two years coming to battle in Reliant Stadium, which is already a big game because it's the Battle of the Piney Woods," Lumberjacks coach J.C. Harper said.
"The Sam Houston-SFA game was big before they put it in Reliant. Now with all those deals, I can just sense what that's going to be like when both teams show up there. I know we'll obviously be very excited to be able to go and play such a quality football team. Hopefully, we won't make those same mistakes and maybe we'll be on the receiving end of that instead of the other way."