Last year, it was an understated, off-the-radar game, even for the Southland Conference.

Both the University of Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State were projected middle-of-the-pack teams when they played their SLC conference opener a little more than a year ago in Huntsville, Texas.

No one realized at the time that this would play out as THE major showdown game that actually determined the league title and more. The Bearkats, better than anyone realized, won that contest, 42-20, and ran off 14 straight victories before it lost to North Dakota State in the national title game.

The Bears lost the next week to Arkansas State to start 1-3, then won eight straight games before losing to Montana in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs.

After that September game, both teams made a national impact.

Saturday’s game at Estes Stadium between the two teams is very much on the radar.

Both are among the favorites in the Southland Conference. Sam Houston is ranked among the top two in the country in various FCS polls. UCA is also ranked. The game will be regionally telecast on the Southland TV Network. Forecast is for a beautiful afternoon and a packed house.

"This will go a long way to establishing the identity of both teams in 2012," said UCA coach Clint Conque.

The teams started the season almost as mirror images, following the preseason form chart, even against higher-level teams. The Bears were highly competitive against Ole Miss, leading the Rebels at the half before losing 49-27. The Bearkats gave Baylor a scare, leading the Bears at the half before losing, 48-23.

"We have 14 to 15 starters back; they have 18 or 19," Conque said. "Both of us are good football teams. We’ve both lost to FBS teams on the road, and both of us led them in the first half before things got away from us. And we both have won the non Division I games (Sam Houston against Bacone and UCA against Incarnate Word) that we were supposed to win."

Those are all the ingredients for a compelling, early showdown game.

And an exciting game. Sam Houston has an attacking defense. UCA has an attacking offense. Both teams will likely make some bold moves in a football game that could merge chess and MMA tactics.

"We are going to be true to what we are and they are going to be true to what they are," Conque said. "It will be a game that comes down to execution and big plays."

And excitement.

"On every play, there’s a pretty good chance somebody’s band has a chance to play," Conque said.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)