When the 2011 season began, not many of the football “experts” were paying a lot of attention to the Sam Houston State Bearkats.

The Kats were predicted to finish fourth in the Southland Conference race in the preseason poll of the league’s head coaches. SHSU wasn’t even listed in the “also receiving votes” category of both national NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) polls.

But a perfect 7-0 run through the Southland for the league title and a 14-1 season record that included an appearance in the Division I national championship game has changed all that.

Now the Bearkats have a target imprinted on their back.

The 2012 team was the overwhelming favorite in the Southland preseason poll. The Bearkats stand No. 1 in the Sports Network FCS national rankings and are No. 2 in the NCAA FCS coaches’ national poll.

Running back Timothy Flanders and utility back Richard Sincere are on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award and Darnell Taylor is on the list for the Buck Buchanan award.

“It’s very flattering,” Bearkat senior defensive tackle J. T. Cleveland said. “But we all know that we have to go out and play our best every game. We have to focus on going one-and-oh every week.”

Staying focused on the mission was one of the strengths of the 2011 Sam Houston team. The Bearkats broke into the national rankings after a victory over Central Arkansas in the third week of the season and climbed steadily all season.

The only FCS team to go 11-0 during the regular season, Sam Houston was the No. 1 seed in the national playoffs. Wins over top teams from Stony Brook, Montana State and Montana put SHSU in the championship finals in Frisco.

“The 2011 team accomplished that, not the 2012 team,” head coach Willie Fritz reminds his players. “In order to receive that same attention this year, we’ve got to win and win big. They have to stay hungry. We have very competitive kids. It’s fun to watch.”

The players know that, with all the preseason attention, they’re not sneaking up on anyone this season. “The tide has changed,” Cleveland, one of five preseason All-America picks on the 2012 squad, said. “It’s something to look forward to, though. We have a big target on our back but we think it’s something we can manage. We just need to take it game by game and give it our all.”

The Bearkats know that the schedule ahead of them includes some big challenges. Sam Houston faces two FBS foes, Baylor and Texas A&M, on the road. The Kats also must play the Southland Conference’s other NCAA Division I playoff team, Central Arkansas, in Conway in the league opener.

“Last year, we weren’t picked to do well in the conference and we won it,” senior wide receiver Trey Diller said. “This year, we’re picked to win the league, but every team has improved. Central Arkansas and McNeese State both have 18 returning starters. SFA is going to be good. Everyone is better. We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”

The 2012 Sam Houston team will look to a strong senior class for leadership as they fight to defend their league title and a return to Frisco.

With anticipation at an all-time high, the Kats know that plenty of intrigued eyes will be on them looking to see what Sam Houston will do now that everyone interested in FCS football after the country certainly will be watching.

The Bearkats begin the 2012 campaign Saturday with the annual “Bearkat Family Weekend” game at 6 p.m. at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium. Kickoff is 6 p.m.

The University of Incarnate Word is the opponent. Tickets are available online now at www.gobearkats.com/tickets or at the SHSU athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House in the south end zone at Bowers Stadium. The ticket office telephone is (936) 294-1729. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.