Deep down, they didn't feel their opponent was a better team.
At least not over the course of the 2011 season.
But in last year's NCAA Division I Football Championship Game, North Dakota State was better than Sam Houston State when it mattered - the 60 minutes in which they shut down the Bearkats, 17-6, in the biggest game of the Bearkats' lives.
On Saturday, the Bearkats get another shot at top-ranked North Dakota State, now the defending national champion. Both teams have returned to the FCS title game at FC Dallas Stadium (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
"The way I feel is they came out to play, we did not come out to play," Sam Houston State senior safety Kenneth Jenkins said. "They were the best team that day, that's what I'm saying. But overall I thought we were the better team. But they came out to play when it was time to come out to play."
"We both played good; they played better," All-America junior running back Timothy Flanders said. "The offense, we were behind a lot in the chains. We really couldn't get any momentum going. They had a very good defensive scheme against our offense."
Sam Houston State entered the national championship game averaging an FCS-best 39.1 points per game, but was held to only two field goals and 210 offensive yards. The Bearkats' advantage in team speed was slowed by the way North Dakota State dictated a methodical, defensive-style game.
The Bison used a fake punt in the third quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown, then turned Travis Beck's long interception return in the fourth quarter into quarterback Brock Jensen's game-clinching TD sneak.
"It was about five plays that changed the game," said senior safety Darnell Taylor. "It was that fake punt. And then right after that fake punt, they ran a screen, and we had a blitz called, and they scored on that. And then they had the pick. It was about four, five plays that changed the game. I know it was a good team last year. I can't take anything away from those guys, but I feel like we could have played a better game."
Sam Houston State enters this year's championship game with the more veteran squad and has an even higher-scoring offense at 41.7 points per game, although the Bearkats know all too well that North Dakota State has allowed only 57 points in seven playoff games the last two seasons.
"We know what they're going to try to do," North Dakota State All-America junior cornerback Marcus Williams said. "They've got a new offensive coordinator, so they do run out of some different formations. But they've got essentially the same personnel. They've got the same quarterback, who's playing better than he did last year, and they still have a great running back (Flanders) who's been running over everybody. We know what we have to do, and we know if we stop those guys it'll be good for us."
The Bearkats' team motto this season has been "Finish."
They get that opportunity to do that again Saturday.
"I think we're ready to play this year," Jenkins said. "We're more hungry."
"One of the main things that we tried to focus on was we made it to the national championship," Flanders said. "So what else can we do to improve on last season? The only thing we could do now is win a national championship."