This past week’s college football headlines have been all about postseason play, what with news breaking that the FBS (Football Bowl Series) conference commissioners are suddenly open to the idea of a bigger College Football Playoff. Could the four-team field expand to six? Eight? Ten? Twelve?
Howzabout sixteen? That’s the number of schools already playing in an actual college football playoff, which is happening as you read this. The FCS tournament began on April 24 and continues with Sunday’s quarterfinal matchups. Yes, if you can have college football in the spring, you can also play on Sunday. Especially if ESPN has the NFL draft to show on Saturday.
The only Texas team participating, Sam Houston, just might win it all. The 7–0 Bearkats cruised through the Southland Conference, and while the FCS coaches’ poll had them ranked fourth in the country, the selection committee saw it differently, making K.C. Keeler’s team the number two overall seed in the tournament. That gives SHSU home-field advantage at Huntsville’s Bowers Stadium up until the final weekend, at which point they’d merely have to travel up Interstate 45 to Frisco, where the football competition officially known as the “NCAA Division 1 Championship Game” has been played every year since 2010.
There’s just one catch: the Bearkats’ reward this weekend is a visit from North Dakota State—the “Alabama of FCS.” The Bison have won eight of the last nine championships, and they’re 36–2 all-time in playoff games. By those standards, the seventh-ranked Bison, with a 7–2 record, had an off-year. For Sam Houston, it’s kind of like earning a number one seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, only to catch Kansas or Kentucky as the number eight. But if this is a game you’d rather see in Frisco—NDSU beat Sam Houston there in 2011 and 2012—it’s still something that has been rare in Texas lately: a Division I college football game with serious national championship implications for the Texas team.
Sam Houston has never lost a home playoff game. The Bearkats coach, K.C. Keeler, has already won a national championship at Delaware and has a sterling playoff record over the course of his career. Even with the NCAA allowing fans to attend Sunday’s quarterfinal at only 50 percent capacity—up from 25 percent last weekend—avoiding a trip to North Dakota’s indoor Fargodome is huge. And yet, the visitors are favored over Sam Houston by three points—and Keeler wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Absolutely, I think we should be the underdog,” he says. “We’re playing the best team in the country. I mean, they’re the defending national champions until someone is crowned the new national champion. They should be the favorite.”
Like every college football team and every human being, Sam Houston spent the past year-plus living with COVID-19; like most of Texas, the Bearkats also had to deal with February’s winter storm, which postponed their first conference game at Incarnate Word, left the players without heat or water, and then, when it was all over, had Keeler and his staff using feed shovels to clear snow off the field for practice. The timing of the spring season also left the team without a locker room, because of a long-planned facilities renovation. So, in addition to the usual Zooms and social distancing, the coaching staff had to meet in either the press box (offense) or an old bank building (defense). “Our players walk to practice with helmets and shoulder pads in hand,” says Keeler. “The kids do their own laundry.”
Like a lot of football teams, they also grappled with the meaning of the Black Lives Matter protests, with Keeler deferring to assistant coaches Siddiq Haynes and Chris Buckner to lead those conversations; the fact that Sam Houston State has one of the country’s top criminal justice programs (including ten criminal justice majors on the football team) added another layer to the dialogue.
With more than 18,000 undergraduates, Sam Houston State University has a larger student body than several Texas FBS schools, including TCU and Baylor. Since 2010, under both Keeler and former head coach Willie Fritz (who left for Georgia Southern and has since gone to Tulane), they’ve been the state’s premier FCS team, supplanting their Piney Woods rival Stephen F. Austin, as well as Texas State (which moved to FBS in 2012). Sam Houston’s best-known football alum is probably quarterback Josh McCown (most recently of the Texans), who transferred in from SMU; Los Angeles Chargers punter Lac Edwards is also a former Kat, while defensive tackle P.J. Hall became the school’s highest-ever NFL draft pick in 2018, going to the Raiders in the second round.
The school’s highest-pedigree asset remains Keeler, who is in his seventh season. Named one of ESPN’s 150 greatest coaches in college football history, the Emmaus, Pennsylvania, native is currently one win shy of tying Jerry Moore (Appalachian State) for the second-most playoff wins in FCS history, and is two behind Jim Tressel (who was at Youngstown State before Ohio State) for the most. Best-known for coaching NFL quarterback Joe Flacco at Delaware, and for his youthful head of hair (“today’s the day I use conditioner,” he joked after being late for this week’s Zoom press conference) and ubiquitous sunglasses (“I have sensitive eyes”), the 61-year-old is still chasing a ring for Sam Houston. Fritz’s 2011 and 2012 teams reached the championship— and lost to North Dakota State both times. Keeler’s 2016 and 2017 teams went a combined 24–3 behind the quarterback play of two-time Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe, but got crushed both times in the playoffs, first by eventual champion James Madison, 65–7, in the 2016 quarterfinals, and then by—who else?—eventual champion North Dakota State, 55–13, in the 2017 semifinals.
Since then, things have changed. “We built this team, offensively and defensively, to play James Madison, to play North Dakota State,” says Keeler. The Kats have always been known for their ability to sling the ball around and put up points—they have the most prolific offense of the remaining playoff teams—but it’s no longer their main identity. “We built our team originally on a lot of speed, and we still want that speed, but we wanted to do a better job being more physical on the O line and D line,” Keeler adds. “We’re upgraded dramatically, especially on defense.”
In that 2017 playoff loss, the Bison rushed for 417 yards against Sam Houston, with 642 yards total offense. Now the Bearkats have the third-best rushing defense in FCS, giving up just 58.9 yards per game, and they haven’t allowed a one-hundred-yard rusher in eighteen games. On offense, they’re led by Southland Conference player of the year Eric Schmid, who played for his father, Mark Schmid, at the Woodlands, and threw for more than two thousand yards in just six regular-season games.
Schmid also runs a legit 4.4 forty-yard dash, which had a lot of schools wanting to put him at receiver; he has a habit of turning seemingly dead plays into highlights.
Keeler says he sometimes struggles to know when to blow the whistle during practice, as Schmid turns plays that look like they’re leading to a sack into positive yardage. “He is just a magician extending plays,” the coach says. “He can either pull the ball down and get good yardage or make those throws downfield. And that’s gonna be the key thing for us.”
NDSU has had trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks, but they don’t have trouble with much else, even in a so-called down year. The Bison have never missed a beat when changing coaches—second-year head coach Matt Entz is the third of this dynasty—and the Bison have also sent three straight quarterbacks to the NFL. This season, they struggled a bit without Trey Lance, who was taken third overall in Thursday’s NFL draft (prior to the current spring schedule, NDSU played a single game last fall, primarily to showcase Lance). But the main reason the Bison are able to do it every season is their linemen and their system. Keeler likens them to Nebraska’s monster teams from the early nineties. “They play violently,” he says. “Every single offensive lineman they have would be all-conference in our league and any other league in FCS.”
Keeler also says they shift and scheme so much that defending against them is like trying to stop a triple option team—but with elite talent. “People always think they’re just big and physical and very simple. No, they’re big and physical, and they really are very diverse in how they run their offense.
“We’re excited that we get the chance to play them. We want to see how good we are.”
If that sounds like Keeler is poor-mouthing, or he doesn’t think his team can win, don’t believe it. He’s not about to say it, but if the Kats are healthy—there have been minor injuries to both Schmid and the offensive line—and if the Texas sun is beating down on the visitors’ bench all afternoon, there’s every reason for Sam Houston’s season to continue.
Of course, if they win, they get another mixed reward—their presumptive semifinal opponent would be none other than James Madison—the top-ranked team in the coach’s poll, with a chip on its shoulder for being seeded third behind the Bearkats. But isn’t it nice that in FCS, the teams get to decide this on the field?