The Sacramento State football players and coaches don't have to be reminded of what slipped through their fingers last year.
Seven games into the season, the Hornets were 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Sky Conference and still riding the thrill of a 30-28 last-minute upset of Pacific-12 Conference member Colorado in Boulder.
Sac State was looking at possibly its best season since moving to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1993, its first playoff berth since 1988 and a rare opportunity for the unsung program to capture the attention of the area's fickle fans.
But a 35-29 upset of Cal Poly on Oct. 27 was sandwiched between three-point losses to Montana State and Eastern Washington all 7-1 finishers in the Big Sky Conference. With a 34-27 loss to UC Davis in the Causeway Classic, the Hornets finished 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Sky.
"It definitely still leaves a salty flavor in our mouths," said junior quarterback Garrett Safron, one of 17 returning starters. "But we've learned from it, and we're working at getting better because of it."
Added senior linebacker Todd Davis: "In a way, last year's finish is fueling us, but Coach (Marshall Sperbeck) also tells us it's a new season, and we've got to look forward."
Sperbeck said there were plenty of positives from 2012, which was only Sac State's fourth winning season in 20 FCS seasons. Two of those winning seasons have taken place under Sperbeck, who's entering his seventh season.
"Last season we were right there at the end. We were in the thick of things," Sperbeck said. " We've just got to win the close games. That's the difference from being 6-5 and 8-3.
" You try to work smarter, work harder, upgrade your roster and correct things you haven't done well in the past."
That breakthrough season could be at hand.
With 36 lettermen returning, including most of their offensive skill players, and the strongest recruiting class since Sperbeck arrived that includes nine local signees, the Hornets have talent and depth.
The playmaking Safron was brilliant at times last season, completing 64 percent of his passes for 2,540 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Three of his top four pass catchers return: senior Morris Norrise (60 catches, 777 yards, seven touchdowns), senior Ezekiel Graham (40 catches, 406 yards, two touchdowns) and junior DeAndre Carter (32 catches, 344 yards, four touchdowns). Graham also was the Hornets' leading rusher (166 carries, 861 yards, five touchdowns).
Anchoring the offensive line is three-year starter and All-Big Sky preseason selectee Tyler Worthley, a senior.
"We definitely have the athleticism and talent we've just got to put it together and keep working hard," Davis said. "I've been impressed with a lot of the younger guys. They're definitely going to help us."
Davis (103 tackles last season), senior backs Osagie Odiase (three interceptions) and Markell Williams (70 tackles) and senior end Trent Eskew (four sacks) lead a defense that's been steeled by the memory of John Bloomfield, the Hornets' lineman who died early last season from a lung ailment.
The former Grant High School player had spent nearly a month in a coma after getting ill during the Hornets' season-opening loss at New Mexico State.
"After the passing of J.D., we got even closer, so our motto is 'Family,' " Davis said. "He was a strong guy who always kept his head up and made sure we worked hard. We embody that even more now to honor his memory."
Sac State opens the season Aug. 29 at San Jose State, then visits Arizona State on Sept. 5 in a bid to beat its third Pac-12 opponent in as many seasons. Before topping Colorado last season, the Hornets upset Oregon State 29-28 in overtime in Corvallis in 2011.
"We were very fortunate to have great efforts in both those games," Sperbeck said. "Anytime you can rally and beat an Oregon State and Colorado, you're doing something right.
"Our kids get up for those challenges. But we aren't thinking about Arizona State. We've got a big challenge with San Jose State. They were a Top 25 team last year. So that's where all our focus is right now."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.