Amid all of the uncertainty and instability facing the Southern Conference following the announced departures of five of the league's 12 members, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sees opportunity.
While the Mocs and Lady Mocs are consistently among the league's best in several sports -- women's basketball, wrestling, softball, men's and women's golf -- in the new-look SoCon the opportunity exists for UTC to become one of the elite athletic programs.
"People are worried about the SoCon -- I think it's a great time to be in the SoCon," UTC volleyball coach Travis Filar said.
Athletic director David Blackburn said UTC can improve in all sports, especially football and men's basketball, and in so doing strengthen the league overall.
"If we can stabilize [the SoCon], and I think we can, then it also is a chance for us to grow in stature within the league," Blackburn said. "I told the commissioner the other night, it's on us. Me and our department here, to try to become more competitive than maybe we have been, in all of our sports, and we can rise to the top of the league, hopefully. And by doing that, we can have a say-so in how strong the league is."
Blackburn made those comments last Friday, the day after Elon announced that it was leaving the SoCon in 2014-15 for the Colonial Athletic Association. The College of Charleston will begin CAA play in the fall. Also leaving in 2014-15 are Davidson, which is going to the Atlantic 10, and Sun Belt-bound Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
New men's basketball coach Will Wade has already had a taste of conference realignment. When he was an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University the school announced that it was leaving the CAA for a A-10.
"That's kind of the world we live in right now," he said of the dramatic chances in conference affiliation throughout Division I. "I think a lot of times people are quick to judge, but you never know how it's going to turn out."
In his new school, Wade sees a lot of potential for success.
"I think it could be a positive for Chattanooga and our basketball program. I still think the Southern Conference is a really, really good conference and now it's time for our teams to step forward and reach their potential," he said. "I think any conference you're in, you want to be one of the top two or three athletic programs within that conference. I think with the Southern Conference, we're going to be across the board one of the top two or three athletic programs."
The UTC football program was in the hunt for the SoCon title and a playoff spot until late last season. This fall, with App State and Georgia Southern ineligible for the championship and postseason, the Mocs should be one of the favorites to win the league.
Because the playoffs are expanding from 20 to 24 teams, UTC's chances of making it to the playoffs for the first time since 1984 are increased, as well.
Mocs coach Russ Huesman said he wasn't sure what to make of all the changes to the SoCon. Regardless, he has more pressing concerns.
"To be honest with you, right now my only job is to worry about the 2013 football season," he said. "We're trying to win -- what happens after that is basically out of my control."
The SoCon spring meetings begin Tuesday in Hilton Head, S.C. During the four-day gathering, the SoCon's presidents and chancellors are expected to approve invitations for membership for Mercer, East Tennessee State and the Virginia Military Institute.
Contact John Frierson at email@example.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MocsBeat.
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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