Twenty-five years ago the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga began the 1986 season in search of an 11th consecutive winning record and the Mocs’ fifth Southern Conference championship since joining the league in football in 1977.
The Mocs are still chasing that fifth SoCon title and the 2011 season could be their best shot since the program’s heydays came to an end in the mid 1980s.
With a talented roster led by proven seniors such as quarterback B.J. Coleman, wide receiver Joel Bradford and linebacker Ryan Consiglio, is it now or never for UTC to have a breakthrough season, to win the SoCon or make a playoff push?
“If we don’t win the title this year, are we dead? No, I don’t think that’s the case at all,” offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield said. “I think that it’s a big year from a standpoint that we’ve got these key players, these seniors in key roles, and they can help us win some games.
“We may not ever have a quarterback like [Coleman] again, we may not have a receiver like Joel again, but I don’t think this makes or breaks us from a program standpoint going into Year 3.”
Third-year head coach Russ Huesman said this is an important season for the players and the development of the program. He knows there are high expectations, and rightfully so.
“Any time you’ve got a senior quarterback that’s good, and you’ve got some weapons around him, you probably should expect to do well,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s pressure, but I think there’s expectations out there. From our players, from our staff, from this city, from you. And that’s fine. That’s the way it should be.”
Of course this season is it for the seniors, but even the younger players acknowledge that a unique window of opportunity is open for them. The Mocs, under Huesman and his staff that has remained intact from last fall, have laid the groundwork for a special season.
UTC went 6-5 in 2009 and ’10, the program’s first consecutive winning seasons since 1990-91, and its five SoCon wins last fall were the most since ’85. Yet the 2010 season felt like a failure in one respect: The Mocs had a chance to make the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and didn’t.
“We’re going to make the playoffs this year — that’s everybody’s mindset,” sophomore linebacker Gunner Miller said. “We’re here to win championships now. ... It’s time to put Chattanooga on the map.”
Leading the way
The Mocs set a school record with nine All-SoCon players last season. Four of those are back, and in all UTC had seven players named preseason all-conference. Five of those seven are seniors.
That’s a combination of talent, experience and leadership that UTC hasn’t seen in quite some time.
“We know we’re capable of beating every team that we face if we show up every quarter, execute, be disciplined and everything like that,” said Bradford, an All-American in 2010 after setting a UTC record with 1,284 receiving yards. “But obviously that’s not easy.”
For the players who endured the final two seasons under former coach Rodney Allison, when UTC won a combined three games, they’ve seen the bottom of the college football experience and now they want to see the top.
Among the seniors on offense or defense, safety Chris Lewis-Harris is the only four-year starter. Coleman, Consiglio and safety Jordan Tippit are three-year starters, while Bradford and defensive tackle Nick Davison, a UAB transfer, are entering their second season as first-teamers.
According to Consiglio, Huesman summed up the veterans’ responsibilities best during a team meeting before preseason practice began.
“What he said is that you just can’t settle for being good again,” Consiglio said. “If you were good last year, you’ve got to be great. That really hit home with me. I think that’s the best way to put it.
“If you were good last year, be great. If you were great, be greater. I think if everyone can buy into that it will definitely be something special come the season.”
A missed opportunity
If the Mocs have a play or two go different against Appalachian State in the 2010 opener, or a play or two the following week at Jacksonville State, then most likely everyone would be talking about getting back to the playoffs instead of making them for the first time since 1984.
UTC led the Mountaineers by 21 early in the fourth quarter and lost. It led Jacksonville State 17-0 in the third quarter and lost. Those defeats were bound to sting for a while, but they hurt even worse given how the rest of the season went.
“We had a couple of games where the fourth quarter kind of got us,” Miller said. “With [strength coach Scott] Brincks, that’s one thing we’ve kind of hit on this summer is we’re going to be in shape and we’re not going to get beat in the fourth quarter.”
If the Mocs had gotten to seven wins — and the losses to Appalachian State, Jacksonville State and Elon were all very winnable games — then they seemed to be a lock for an at-large bid given their difficult schedule.
Instead, UTC came up a win short and Georgia Southern, which the Mocs beat 35-27, got in at 7-4. The Eagles then advanced all the way to the semifinals.
“Once you get in the playoffs there’s no telling what can happen,” Consiglio said. “Georgia Southern gets in there and look at what they went and did. Getting in the playoffs is goal No. 1 and to do that we’re just going to have to build on everything we’ve done these last two years. We’ve laid the foundation.”
Building on success
As big a season as this may be for the Mocs, it’s also huge for Finley Stadium. After losing $60,000 in funding from the city, the folks at Finley are counting on UTC to draw big crowds and hopefully earn a home playoff game or two.
In 2009, Huesman’s first season, the Mocs’ average attendance was 10,503 for its five home games, a record for a full season that was surpassed in 2010. Last season, that number went up to 12,699.
“I think our attendance will continue to grow and therefore we’ll generate more revenue out of parking and out of concessions, which we desperately need,” Finley Stadium executive director Merrill Eckstein said. “But the real key is bringing in another huge crowd or two that comes for a playoff game. Those would be brand-new dollars for us.”
If UTC can improve on the 6-5 seasons and continue to build on a fan base that had little to cheer about for more than two decades then that’s win-win for the Mocs and Finley.
Combine UTC’s turnaround with a poor economy and the recent struggles of the Tennessee Vols and Georgia Bulldogs and Stadium Corp. board chairman Bryan Patten sees a golden opportunity.
“The key though is for us to have a dependable, quality product that people want to go see,” Patten said. “It’s a huge opportunity, economically. If you can do it for $100 for the whole family [at a UTC game] versus at least $250 per person [to see the Vols], you’re going to start thinking pretty seriously about coming to see the Mocs.
“We’re at the cusp of moving to a top-tier Southern Conference team and if we demonstrate that the fans will come.”
Athletic director Rick Hart said UTC isn’t doing anything extraordinary leading up to the season in terms of marketing or promotion. UTC has set season-ticket sales records each of the past two seasons — 2,678 were sold in 2010 — and it expects to set another record this fall.
Coaching staff consistency
Not only is the clock ticking for this senior class, it could also be ticking for this coaching staff.
The Mocs have the same group of coaches as they did last season, something that doesn’t happen a lot in the FCS and certainly not at UTC. During Allison’s six seasons as coach he had more than two dozen assistants.
“It’s huge,” Huesman said of keeping the staff intact. “I told them all after the season last year, I though they did a great job and I wanted them all back. Fortunately they all came back and they’re doing a great job.”
If UTC’s offense is as productive as it was last season, when it was ranked 11th in the FCS in total offense, Satterfield could have the chance to move on to a bigger job. The same goes for any number of Huesman’s 10 assistants whose presence from last season through recruiting and spring practice and now this season have added valuable consistency to the program.
“Am I naive to think this staff is all going to be here next year? Probably not,” Huesman said. “If we can keep them one more year that’d be unbelievable.”
A daunting schedule
The Mocs might be better than they were in 2010, that remains to be seen, but their schedule sure isn’t any easier. In fact, it’s even more difficult.
Even though the teams on the schedule are the same as last season with the exception of a trip to Nebraska instead of Auburn, getting wins away from Finley will be a lot tougher. Instead of facing Appalachian State and Georgia Southern — the SoCon preseason favorites — at home as UTC did in 2010, the Mocs have to travel to the two toughest places to play in the league.
“You look at our schedule and it has to be one of the toughest schedules in the nation,” Bradford said.
Along with traveling to Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, two teams with No. 1 rankings in preseason polls, the Mocs will host Jacksonville State and Wofford. Both the Gamecocks and Terriers are ranked in the top 10 of most polls.
Freshman fullback Taharin Tyson said all the Mocs recognize what’s in front of them and they are determined to seize those opportunities.
“I just think the whole team is hungry. I think it’s time for a change,” he said. “Everybody feels like it’s time for a change, even the freshmen coming in. We’re just like, we’re going to go out here and we’re going to perform. It’s our time.”
John Frierson is in his fifth year at the Times Free Press and fifth year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...