Instead of downplaying the pressure Fort Hays State faces to duplicate last year’s season, Tiger coach Chris Brown is embracing it.

Following an 11-1 campaign and MIAA championship in 2017, expectations are at an all-time high for the No. 5-ranked Tigers heading into Thursday’s season opener against No. 18-ranked Central Missouri at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lewis Field Stadium.

“It’s fun, it’s exhausting, it’s stressful,” Brown said, “especially when you got people coming up and telling you, ‘Hey, the pressure’s on now. After what you did last year we’re expecting that same thing again.’ You know, I do too. I have those same expectations for them.

“I like having a little bit of that pressure as well. Because if you don’t love doing it, then why are you doing it?”

“I just don’t want to have a team that’s average year in and year out. I want to play at a high level consistently as I’m here at Fort Hays State. I want to win a conference championship again. I want to win a national championship here. If you don’t have those expectations, then why are you doing this?”

The pressure begins immediately for the Tigers with a tough first matchup against the Mules.

“This kind of decides where we’re going to go for the rest of the season,” FHSU quarterback Jacob Mezera said. “Are we going to make it an uphill climb or are we going to ‘Defend the Fort’ and our championship. I don’t want to lose this game and then have to be perfect the rest of the year. It’s going to be a big one. To me, it’s a really, really, really big game and we need to come out on top.”

The Mules, coming off a 9-3 season and Mineral Water Bowl victory, are led by senior quarterback Brook Bolles, who threw for 3,766 yards and 23 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last year. His top returning target is tight end Seth Hebert, who caught 34 passes for 573 yards and five touchdowns last year.

Devante Turner is the Mules top returner rusher after going for 920 yards on the ground.

“They have an explosive offense and they like the big play,” FHSU senior bandit Doyin Jibowu said. “They like to go over the top of your head. We have to be sound on defense. We have to make sure everyone does their assignment and everyone’s in the right position. The way you defend a team like that is you have to be perfect in your assignments.

“As a defense, in the past, we’ve done a good job of being able to defend the big play and being able to limit teams to just itty-bitty plays. That’s what we’re going to have to do on Thursday.”

Brown, who will be going for win No. 50 on Thursday as he begins his eighth season at FHSU, said the Tigers will need to take advantage of their opportunities for big plays.

“They play the run hard and they put a lot of stress on their safeties and their corners to play man coverage,” Brown said. “I think we’ve got to beat them a few times just to get them out of that man coverage so much.

“They do take chances. In the past they’ve liked to blitz. You just don’t know what you’re going to get from them, so we’ve got to prepare for everything.”