No. 2 Sam Houston visits No. 9 McNeese in a showdown for first place in the Southland Conference between the league’s two top-ranked teams. The Cowboys and Bearkats kickoff at 7 p.m. on Louis Bonnette Field at Cowboy Stadium.

McNeese State stands as the winningest team in the Southland’s 50-year football history. The Cowboys own a 156-82-7 overall record since joining the league in 1972. McNeese has won 13 conference titles including three championships since 2006.

Sam Houston is seeking to become only the fifth team in Southland Conference history to earn league championships three years in a row. Lamar (1964-65-66), Arkansas State (1968-69-70), Louisiana Tech (1971-72-73-74) and McNeese (2001-02-03) are the only teams to pull off the feat in the Southland’s 50 years of football. SHSU won in 2011 title with a 7-0 record and in 2012 with a 6-1 slate. The Bearkats have five Southland titles overall in their 26 years in the legue. SHSU also won championships in 1991, 2001 and 2004.

Since 1988 when Sam Houston joined the Southland Conference, Sam Houston stands 2-11 in Cowboy Stadium. In the two team’s 25 league battles, McNeese owns a 20-5 victory advantage. Sam Houston defeated McNeese State 20-3 in Lake Charles in 1999 and 38-14 at Cowboy Stadium in 2011. The win in “The Hole” two years ago ended a five-game losing streak in Lake Charles. When the Kats defeated McNeese 45-10 at SHSU homecoming last year, the 2011 and 2012 wins marked the first time Sam Houston has won back-to-back seasons over the Cowboys at the FCS level.
Sam Houston’s other wins over McNeese since 1988 were in Huntsville in 1996 (30-25) and 2004 (52-47). Overall, McNeese State holds a 24-9-1 advantage over Sam Houston in the complete series standings. The Pelican State always has been a difficult venue for the Bearkats. Sam Houston owns a 28-53-3 record all-time in Louisiana. Under head coach Willie Fritz, the Kats are 5-1 east of the Sabine River.

Since the start of the 2011 Southland championship season, Sam Houston stands 12-6 in games away from Bowers Stadium That includes a 10-4 record at opponents’ home sites with three of the four losses to FBS foes (two at Texas A&M and one at Baylor). Central Arkansas is the only FCS loss on a foe’s home field since 2011. The Kats are 2-2 at neutral sites with two wins over SFA at Reliant Stadium and two losses to North Dakota State in the national championship game at Frisco.

Saturday marks the second time this season and 28th time overall that Sam Houston and its opponent both have come into the contest FCS nationally ranked. The Bearkats are 16-11 in those contests including the 49-34 win over then No. 2 ranked Eastern Washington Sept. 28. Overall, Sam Houston owns eight wins over Top 5 FCS ranked foes.

The Bearkats stand No. 2 in both the current 2013 Sports Network and NCAA Coaches polls. Sam Houston has finished each of the past two seasons No. 2 in the final rankings in both polls. The Bearkats have been ranked among the FCS top 25 for 31 consecutive weeks. The team debuted in the national poll Sept. 9, 2011. During an 11-0 regular season in 2011, the Kats rose to No. 1 at the end of the regular season. SHSU has ranked among the FCS top 10 for 27 consecutive polls.

Walter Payton Award candidate Timothy Flanders has earned league offensive honors twice this season. His first award came after scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 170 yards against Texas A&M. Flanders’ total was the most by any player against A&M in 42 games (since Colt McCoy of Texas in 2009). Flanders was both Southland and FCS national player of the week after gained 280 yards on 32 carries in the victory over No. 2 Eastern Washington.

Linebacker Tanner Brock received the league’s weekly defensive honor after leading the team in tackles and posting two sacks in the victory over Texas Southern.

Cornerback De’Antrey Loche was Southland defensive player of the week after returning an interception 42 yards for a touchdown to put Sam Houston ahead to stay in the EWU victory.

Wide receiver / punt return specialist Torrance Williams is this week’s Southland special teams player of the week. Williams returned five punts for 138 yards including a long of 53 in the Lamar win.

Sam Houston State leads FCS national statistics in rushing offense (319.0 yards per game). The Bearkats are second nationally in scoring (45.3 points per contest). The SHSU football team also stands third in FCS yards per catch (15.80), fourth in punt return yardage (20.42), fifth in blocked kicks (4) and seventh in passing efficiency (170.7).

All-America running back, Walter Payton Award candidate and two-time Southland “Player of the Year” Timothy Flanders ranks third in FCS football in total rushing yards with 849 in six games this year. He stands No. 3 in FCS in rushing yards per game (141.5). The Midwest City, Okla., product is the first Southland Conference running back to gain more than 5,000 rushing yards. He holds 31 Sam Houston school records and eight Southland Conference marks. He has rushed 880 times for 5,083 yards and 61 touchdowns in his career. Flanders owns the league’s career marks for rushing TDs (61), total touchdowns (65) and points (390). He stands as the FCS active career rushing leader and has posted 29 100-yard rushing performances during his Sam Houston career.

Brian Bell is Sam Houston’s all-time winningest quarterback, leading SHSU to 34 victories in 44 starts since 2010. He stands third in FCS national rankings for yards per completion (16.22). The senior from China Spring is the program’s all-time leader in passing (6,992 yards) and total offense (8,105 yards). Bell’s 65 career touchdown passes also is an SHSU school mark and stands as the 8th highest total in Southland annals. Bell also is only the second quarterback in school history to gain 1,000 career yards rushing. The first was David Kubiak (1,528 in 1967-70). Bell has rushed for 1,113 to become the 32nd member of the SHSU 1,000-yard rushing club. He has 19 rushing TDs to his credit. Bell is eight yards away from becoming the 12th quarterback in Southland Conference history to throw for 7,000 or more career yards.

Richard Sincere, the senior wide receiver who also runs the “Wild Bearkat” formation and returns kicks for SHSU, is yards the eighth Sam Houston player to roll up 3,000 or more all-purpose yards. His combined career total for rushing, receiving and returns is 3,170. The Galveston Ball product is one of only two Bearkats to gain more than 1,000 yards in a career both rushing and receiving. He has totaled 2,080 rushing yards and 1,011 receiving. Tony January gained 2,376 yards rushing and 1,328 yards receiving in 1978-82.

Sincere has six rushes for more than 40 yards (including a long of 65 yards for a touchdown in the 2012 victory over McNeese). He has three touchdown catches of more than 60 yards (the longest 77 yards from Brian Bell in the 2011 Lamar victory). Sincere needs 10 more all-purpose yards to climb to No. 6 in SHSU career statistics.

Torrance Williams leads the Southland Conference in punt returns (16 for 358 yards) and tied for first place national in FCS punt return average (22.4 yards per return). He earned the Southland special teams player-of-the-week after the Lamar victory, returning five punts for 138 yards with a long return of 53 yards. Williams became the 22nd member of the 1,000-yard career receiving club at Sam Houston after the Eastern Washington won. His four-year total now stands at 75 catches for 1,114 yards and 12 touchdowns. The speedy Waco Connally product has totaled 2,053 career all-purpose yards.

The biggest offensive question mark coming into the 2013 season was in the offensive line where sophomore Donald Jackson III and senior Matt Boyles were the only returning veterans with starting experience. The young line has surrendered only two sacks in five games and paving the way for an offense that leads the nation in rushing offense and ranks second in points per game.

Sam Houston’s defense has ranked as one of the best in FCS the past two years, leading the nation in rushing defense in 2011 and ranking 16th nationally in turnover margin last year. But the Bearkats had to replace six All-Southland performers including the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Darnell Taylor. The defense has responded to the challenge, producing 10 turnovers in six games (seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries).

Three seniors are piling up the tackles for the Bearkats. Tanner Brock, a transfer from TCU, leads the defense with 42 stops including two quarterback sacks. Eric Fieilo has 39 tackles including three for losses.  He picked off a Johnny Manziel pass for an interception in the Texas A&M game. Jesse Beauchamp was the team’s second-leading tackler in 2012 with 94 stops. He has 17 tackles to his credit this year.

Cornerback Bookie Sneed is the Bearkats’ lone returning starter in the secondary. Sneed picked off four interceptions last year and eight in his career. He is tied for eighth in career interceptions at SHSU. He holds a school record with his 92-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter of the 2012 SFA victory. The play broke a mark that had stood since 1968.

Andrew Weaver was selected to the Associated Press FCS All-America third team in 2012. He was an All-Southland second team honoree. Weaver had two sacks at Montana State and one in the NCAA title game. In 2011, he returned an interception for 23 yards versus SFA. This season the Texas A&M transfer leads the Bearkats with five sacks.

Three Kat defensive backs have returned interceptions for scores this season. Shelby Davis and Tristen Eche each returned interceptions for TDs in the Houston Baptist victory. De’Antrey Loche brought back a interception 42 yards for a game-turning score against EWU.

Nine All-Southland Conference performers return from the 2012 squad including first team selections running back Timothy Flanders and wide receiver/wildkat back Richard Sincere. Second team all-conference Kats returning include quarterback Brian Bell, defensive linemen Gary Lorance and Andrew Weaver and defensive back Bookie Sneed. Receiving All-Southland honorable mention in 2012 were running back Keshawn Hill, offensive linemen Donald Jackson, defensive lineman Jarrett Brown and linebacker Jesse Beauchamp.