Samford Ready to Turn the Corner
By Matthew Osborne
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Samford has yet to make the playoffs as a member of the SoCon, but the Bulldogs believe that will change this season.
* Note: A photo gallery of Southern Pigskin's recent trip to Samford is included at the bottom of the article.
Since becoming a member of the Southern Conference prior to the 2008 season, the Samford Bulldogs have garnered a reputation for being a pesky, hard-nosed football team.
Although the Bulldogs have yet to reach the FCS playoffs themselves since joining the conference, Samford has frequently played the role of spoiler in recent seasons. For proof, you need no more than to ask perennial power Georgia Southern, which lost its first three contests with the Bulldogs before finally getting over the hump last season.
While Samford head coach, and former Heisman Trophy winner, Pat Sullivan is pleased that his team has gained notoriety for how competitively they play the game, he knows that it is time for his team to take the all-important step from annoying opponent to legitimate contender.
Returning 14 starters from last year’s 6-5 team is certainly a good starting point for the Bulldogs, but Sullivan believes it is the attributes which are harder to quantify that will bring about the desired level of success for his team in 2012.
“One of the things that excites me about this football team – and I think we have got a chance to have the best football team that we’ve had since I’ve been here – is all of the intangibles. I don’t know that I’ve, in 25 years, been around a team that has more chemistry than this one does,” Sullivan said of his current collection of players and coaches. “People talk about family atmosphere, but I don’t think there’s any question that it is here.”
Intangibles are certainly imperative to the success of any football team, but the Bulldogs obviously will not achieve their goal of making the FCS playoffs without talent and experience.
Sullivan believes that his team was initially at a disadvantage upon the move to the SoCon due to the increase in competition.
Through a renewed commitment to the football program from the university’s administration, however, Samford has steadily improved its talent pool over the past five seasons. With the increase in talent, though, has come an increased reliance on inexperienced players for production.
Sullivan is hoping that his decision to employ youthful squads in the past will pay dividends this fall.
“We played a lot of young guys last year,” the sixth-year head coach of the Bulldogs commented. “I’m really excited about this football team. We have to stay healthy, without question, but we are showing all of the good signs right now.”
Retaining a clean bill of health will be of particular importance for the Bulldogs this season, as Samford opens the 2012 campaign with a difficult home contest against Furman.
Samford defeated the Paladins 26-21 on the road last season, but Furman played its best football following their matchup with the Bulldogs last fall.
The Paladins were picked to finish fifth in the league this season by conference media, one spot ahead of Samford.
A contest between two relatively evenly matched teams will provide an early litmus test for a hopeful Bulldog squad.
“We’ll find out early – we open with Furman right out the gate, and they’ll be good – where we are,” said Sullivan. “When we play them is kind of irrelevant, because we have to play them at some time; might as well start off with them.”
If you spend even a brief period of time spent in Birmingham, it will become immediately apparent that there is a unique and positive vibe around this football team. Though the Bulldogs were picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, the coaches and players unquestionably believe that this is the year in which Samford will finally make the FCS playoffs as a member of the SoCon.
Regardless of what the outside expectations may be for the program, Sullivan is setting the bar extremely high for his team this fall.
“Our team goal this year, number one, is to make the playoffs. We’ve talked about it, but we feel like that it’s time for us to do that. Then the other thing is obviously to win the conference championship."
The Bulldogs have always been a tough and competitive team. Don’t be surprised, however, if that competitiveness finally translates into increased wins on the gridiron this season.