UTC (0-0) vs. Central Michigan (0-0)
Tonight at 7
Mount Pleasant, Mich.
ESPN3; 96.1 FM
It's the first requirement before taking off on any road trip. It's also the first action football players take to show they're ready to step onto the field.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football players will buckle their helmets and begin the season's journey tonight at 7 at FBS foe Central Michigan. CMU's Chippewas have opened their home schedule against an FCS opponent every year since 2008 and have won every one of those games, but not without some close calls along the way. Last year CMU squeaked out a 24-21 win over New Hampshire.
"It's different, because when you're playing like an Alabama the mood that week is different than other games because I don't think there's that belief from everybody like there should be," UTC All-America defensive end Davis Tull said. "You have to have everybody on the team believing you can win, and it feels like the whole team believes that going into this game.
"I know they're supposed to be better than us because they've got more scholarships, but at the same time, with it being a lower-level FBS team, it gives you a more competitive edge and makes it more fun to get ready for. It should be a really fun game and a good tuneup whether we win or not."
Coming off an eight-win season, the Mocs have had more offseason hype than in any previous year. They have the Southern Conference's preseason offensive and defensive players of the year and are the favorites to win the league. Several players have been named to awards watch lists, and UTC has the highest preseason national ranking (No. 14 by The Sports Network) in program history.
But it's also the first step in a very challenging early schedule. The Mocs will be underdogs in their first two games, including next week's home opener against sixth-ranked Jacksonville State. There's also a home game against last year's SoCon co-champion Samford in three weeks.
Despite the difficult early slate and not having qualified for the NCAA playoffs in 30 years, Mocs players and coaches have not only embraced the high expectations but are confident they can extend road success well past the final regular-season game.
Since summer conditioning began, every workout and practice has ended with the team huddling together, having one player yell "Road to ..." and the rest of the team shouting "Frisco!" referencing Frisco, Texas, site of the FCS national championship game.
"We say it after everything we do as a team," Mocs quarterback Jacob Huesman said. "It's part of our thought process with everything we do, because we all want to get to Frisco. That's our team goal, and we don't hide from those high expectations.
"The best teams I've been a part of are the ones where championships were all we talked about. My senior year of high school, all we talked about at Baylor was making it to the state championship, and we made it. Last year we broke it down with 'SoCon champs' because that was our goal, and we achieved that. Now we're taking the next step and we're not afraid of that at all."
The Mocs will start two freshmen on the offensive line tonight and a very inexperienced secondary that includes just two players with previous starting experience. UTC could play as many as five true freshmen against a Chippewas team that returns 19 starters, including all 11 on offense and the MAC's leading tackler last season, senior linebacker Justin Cherocci. Senior receiver Titus Davis leads the nation among active pass catchers with 18.9 yards per catch for his career.
Central Michigan, which played in the Little Caesars Bowl two years ago, finished 6-6 last season with three of those wins decided by five points or less.
"They're a big, physical team and it's going to be tough, but I like the challenge," Tull said. "Regardless of what happens in this one, there's no reason we shouldn't win every game at our level, and that includes in the playoffs and winning it all.
"I'm super happy to bring a conference championship to Chattanooga and for the fans, but to be honest, I don't even know where my [SoCon championship] ring from last year is because it didn't do anything for me. Having to share it with two other teams and not make the playoffs, that wasn't my goal. It's more frustrating than anything. For us to get something that means something, we have to win it outright."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...