published Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Mocs in fight for ranking

It wasn’t that long ago — 2008, to be exact — that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team was struggling to save face in a long and miserable 1-11 season.

It was the low point for a once-proud program that hadn’t seen many successful Saturdays since the early 1980s. There was never any serious talk about eliminating the program, but chancellor Roger Brown said the subject was raised soon after he took the job.

“When I arrived in 2005, one of the first questions that was posed to me by a broadcast journalist was, ‘When do you anticipate abolishing football?’” Brown said. “There was a buzz in town, on talk radio, among alumni councils, who said we spend a lot of money and we don’t get much back and why don’t we redirect some of those resources?

“I don’t get those calls now.”

No kidding.

This afternoon at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C., the 14th-ranked Mocs (2-1) will begin Southern Conference play against six-time defending SoCon champion Appalachian State (2-1), which is ranked No. 3 and, as always, is regarded as a contender for the Football Championship Subdivision national title.

A win certainly would move UTC into the top 10 in the polls and announce Brown’s school as a serious player for the SoCon title and maybe more.

“It’s definitely a big change from [2008],” senior wideout Joel Bradford said. “It’s the highest we’ve been ranked since 1992 and I come out here to practice just knowing where I’ve been, and I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel like we’re 13th in the nation [in the Sports Network poll] or we’re one of those top-ranked teams.

“But we are confident enough, we are good enough, to beat the top teams.”

For seniors such as Bradford and Sloan Allison, the son of former coach Rodney Allison, Appalachian State is one of the teams they’ve faced regularly but haven’t beaten.

Entering the season, the list was Jacksonville State, ASU and Elon. The Mocs got their win over JSU in Week 2 and now they want to cross off the Mountaineers.

“It is a big opportunity, and any time you get a chance to go into Boone ...,” Allison said before catching himself and downplaying the magnitude of today’s matchup. “You say there’s a lot on the line, but it’s early in the season.”

True, but it’s Appalachian State — one of the programs that would be on the FCS Mount Rushmore — and a win in front of more than 30,000 die-hard Mountaineers fans would be the biggest moment by far of the Russ Huesman era.

“It really would raise the excitement, raise the fever a lot,” Brown said. “And then the other side of that is, a win raises the expectations for continued success.”

The fog of negativity that shrouded the program for decades, through several coaches, started to lift in December 2008 when Huesman, a former UTC safety, was hired as coach just days after helping Richmond win a national championship at Finley Stadium.

Huesman knew the Mocs had been bad, posting just two winning seasons since the early 1990s, but he said he never doubted the program’s potential and never felt he was working to save the program.

“I knew we could win,” he said. “It never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t be successful here, not one time. ... We’re not the best team in the Southern Conference, but I think we’re moving in that direction.”

The Mocs went 6-5 in Huesman’s first two seasons, UTC’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 1990-91, but Huesman won’t take too much credit for the record in 2009.

“That first year was pure luck,” he said. “Now we’re playing football. We’re doing things the way you should play and do things. That first year it was gimmick after gimmick after lucky bounce.”

Gimmicks don’t beat the Mountaineers, who are 27-1 in their last 28 SoCon games. They rallied from a 35-14 deficit early in the fourth quarter last season to break UTC’s hearts with a 42-41 win. ASU wide receiver Brian Quick said Tuesday that it was the best win the Mountaineers had all season.

Nobody was saying that about beating the Mocs three seasons ago.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh 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 ...

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