(STATS) - The pressure of the last two games can't compare to what Sam Houston State now faces. This is the one where it's time to prove the doubters wrong.
And for the scoreboard operator to be extremely busy.
In a clash of the country's highest-scoring offenses, the Bearkats are the underdogs despite being atop the STATS Top 25 mainly because they must head into a chilly, unfriendly environment Friday night to face James Madison in the FCS quarterfinals.
"It'll be cold, it'll be dark, it'll be perfect," Dukes coach Mike Houston said.
Sam Houston State (12-0) has long been No. 1 in the polls, steamrolling every opponent during a regular season it capped with a 59-23 rout of Central Arkansas in a de facto Southland Conference title game. Yet, a mostly unimpressive schedule led to only a No. 5 seed for the playoffs, and maybe the selection committee felt somewhat justified after the Bearkats narrowly escaped with a 41-36 win over Chattanooga to open the playoffs.
Unlike those last two wins, the Bearkats now won't have the luxury of playing at home in the warmth of Huntsville, Texas. Besides having to go on the road because James Madison (11-1) is the higher seed at No. 4, temperature at kickoff in Harrisonburg, Virginia, should be in the 20s for a prime-time game being played in front of a national TV audience on ESPN2.
It's also a big step up competition-wise. The Dukes went 9-0 in CAA Football - a tougher conference than the Southland - and suffered their only loss on the road to FBS foe North Carolina.
Plus, the Bearkats haven't seen an offense that can be anywhere near as potent as theirs - until now.
"This is probably without doubt the most in terms of looking in the mirror," said Sam Houston State's K.C. Keeler, the Eddie Robinson Award winner as the STATS FCS Coach of the Year. "This is gonna be a team we think we're playing our equal."
Keeler's squad leads all of college football with 53.1 points per game, and the only team within five points of that average is the Dukes at 48.3. The over/under for the game is an eye-opening 84 1/2.
Sam Houston State has the bigger name at quarterback in Jeremiah Briscoe, a favorite to win the Walter Payton Award after setting an FCS single-season record with 57 touchdown passes. The junior has thrown for 4,459 yards for a Bearkats offense that leads the nation with 570.4 yards per game.
"He has a very quick release, he has very good accuracy and he has a very, very strong arm," Houston said. "I mean, that ball gets there in a hurry. So you get a guy like that surrounded with the weapons that they have, that's why they put up almost arcade-like numbers."
The Dukes have a signal-caller who has become nearly as dangerous in Bryan Schor.
In his last four full games - he missed 1 1/2 games last month with a shoulder injury - Schor has put up Briscoe-like numbers with 17 touchdown passes and one interception while averaging 307 yards through the air. Plus, Schor is more of a dual threat with 522 yards and nine TDs on the ground this season.
"He and Briscoe are the two best quarterbacks in the country probably," Keeler said. "His accuracy is uncanny. His ability to throw the ball away and get himself out of trouble.
"... Obviously, I think I have the best quarterback in the country, but (Schor) might be a close No. 2. And I'm biased because I live with our kid every day."
It was actually Schor who was statistically better last week, going 30 of 37 for 371 yards and five TDs as James Madison totaled 567 yards in a 55-22 win over New Hampshire. Briscoe matched him with five TD passes and threw for 363 yards, but he completed just 20 of 40 passes and the Bearkats were held to a season-low 421 yards.
Briscoe was sacked six times, two fewer than the number of times he was dropped during the entire regular season.
It's that kind of physicality that Houston feels will be a deciding factor.
"I firmly believe that you get in these ballgames, middle of December, cold weather, a lot of stakes on the line, if you have a team that has that kind of identity, you got a shot," he said. "I expect our guys to go out and play with a lot of heart and intensity Friday night, and I expect it to be a very physical ballgame."