(STATS) - Some pundits questioned whether Sam Houston State should be atop the STATS FCS Top 25 or considered a top title contender as last year's playoffs began. An unbeaten record lacking in high-profile wins resulted in only a No. 5 seed by the FCS selection committee.
That led to a cold-weather road game in the quarterfinals, and the skeptics were validated by the Bearkats being humiliated in a 65-7 loss to James Madison. Sure, the Dukes went on to win the FCS championship, but they looked more like an FBS title team the way they dominated Sam Houston State from start to finish.
Everyone will know right off the bat this year whether the Bearkats are for real - and fully recovered from that shellacking - because they'll take on seventh-ranked Richmond on Sunday night to close out "Week Zero" of the college football schedule.
"We do have a great understanding that if we want to be one of those top four seeds, this is what you have to do. You have to win big out-of-conference games like this," said Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler, who mentioned the big disparity between having to travel during finals as a No. 5 seed instead of playing at home.
The Bearkats are ahead of the Spiders in the STATS preseason poll at No. 3 and have home-field advantage, factors which only add to the pressure they face - along with being on national TV in the only game on the Sunday preceding Week 1 of the college season.
"You can't buy this exposure," said Russ Huesman, in his first year as Richmond coach after leaving Chattanooga.
This will be Huesman's second straight game at Sam Houston State's Bowers Stadium. His Mocs put up quite a fight against the high-powered Bearkats in the second round of last year's playoffs before losing 41-36.
Like Sam Houston, which went 12-1 last year, Richmond reached the quarterfinals but finished 10-4. However, that record included a 47-43 loss to James Madison - a game the Spiders led with two minutes to play. They also opened the season with a win at FBS rival Virginia, part of a schedule which was far superior to SHSU's.
The Bearkats didn't add an FBS opponent this year - not that it was entirely their fault.
"We played Texas Tech (in 2015), we turned the ball over four times and lost to them by 14. I think at that point a lot of (FBS teams) decided that we weren't a great matchup," Keeler said. "We're struggling getting 1-A games right now.
"So when my administration came to me about the opportunity to play a high, high-level FCS opponent, I'm like, 'We had strength of schedule issues last year, we want to get the best opponent in here that we can.' So when it all matched up (with Richmond), we were very excited."
The squad on the other side of the field also has national title aspirations.
"From a team standpoint, everybody's goal is Frisco," Spiders wideout Jarmal Bevels said, referring to the Texas home of the FCS national championship game. That's about 200 miles north of Sam Houston's campus in Huntsville.
It's a tough first assignment for Huesman, who returns to Richmond after helping the program win the 2008 national title as its defensive coordinator. He left for Chattanooga and resurrected that program, including playoff appearances in the past three years, and now steps into a great situation with a Spiders team returning 20 starters.
Keeler also brings back most of his top players, led by STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe.
The Houston native set the FCS single-season record with 57 touchdown passes but had none in the JMU loss, and he should be happy the award votes were counted weeks earlier. He was 13 of 44 for 143 yards with two interceptions, though even Huesman noticed after the Chattanooga game that Briscoe was not fully healthy, and Keeler almost didn't play him versus the Dukes.
Briscoe is joined on this year's Payton Award watch list by Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta, who returns after suffering a torn ACL in a regular season-ending loss at William & Mary. He still topped 3,000 yards passing, totaled 24 touchdown passes and did not throw an interception in his final five games.
"Sam Houston State is a powerhouse, and it's our job to take 'em head-on," Lauletta said. "It'll be a tough game, but those are the games you live for."
Lauletta doesn't have to do it by himself because the Spiders have another star in the backfield with Deontez Thompson, who rushed for 1,001 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman in 2016.
The Bearkats have two dynamic tailbacks in Remus Bulmer and Corey Avery, who rushed for a combined 1,656 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. That duo along with Briscoe helped SHSU lead the nation with 49.5 points per game.
Keeler said if there's one thing he learned from the James Madison loss, it's that his team might need to focus more on the ground game than just rely on Briscoe's big arm.
"In those cold conditions with a banged-up quarterback, we had to run the football better and we weren't able to do that," Keeler said. "I think we just got a little too caught up with our numbers - 57 touchdown passes, 54 points a game and all those things. There are times that you need to run the football."