So much for easing into the season.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team will be battle tested just two weeks into the season but also will have a good idea which direction the season is headed.
After a frustrating four-point loss at FBS opponent Central Michigan to open the season, the Mocs must get ready to face Saturday a Jacksonville State team that is ranked No. 9 nationally in both the FCS coaches' poll and The Sports Network poll. Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Finley Stadium.
"They're a really, really good team, and it will be another tough test for us," UTC quarterback Jacob Huesman said. "We all have to come out to practice this week, correct the mistakes we made last week and be ready come Saturday to play a very athletic team.
"They're one of the toughest on our schedule, and it's become a pretty good rivalry between the two teams."
Jacksonville State is the highest-ranked nonconference opponent to visit the Mocs at Finley Stadium, and that comes after falling a few spots, from a preseason ranking of No. 6, following a 38-point loss at defending Big Ten champ Michigan State last Friday.
With a win, the Mocs' confidence should be soaring heading into Southern Conference play, but a loss would leave them fighting for their playoff lives the rest of the year.
"I don't think Jacksonville State is feeling sorry for us, because I think they've got two tough ones, too, to start the season off," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said. "A lot of people do, and it's just the way the schedule was made. I think it'll make us a better football team. I think this first game against Central Michigan will make us better, and Jacksonville State will make us better down the road, too.
"There's good and bad to it. Would I like to start with two cream puffs? Yeah, I think every coach in America would. If they said no, I think they'd be lying to you."
The Gamecocks are the preseason pick to win the Ohio Valley Conference and have eight players named preseason all-conference, including offensive player of the year DeMarcus James, a 1,500-yard rusher last season.
The early-season schedule doesn't lighten up much throughout September. The Mocs host Southern Conference co-champion Samford on the final weekend of the month.
By October, the Mocs will know exactly where they stand in the league pecking order and in their playoff chances.
"I think we'll be ready to play," said senior receiver Tommy Hudson, who had two touchdown catches in Thursday's opener. "It's a tough way to start the season, but we have an awesome team this year. Everyone is talented. We might not have the same depth as the bigger schools, but we can compete with anybody."
Under Coach Huesman, tough early-season schedules have become the norm. UTC's loss at Central Michigan was its fifth straight season-opening defeat, including three to FBS opponents. The Mocs' last season-opening win came against Glenville State in 2009, Huesman's first season. Since then UTC has opened seasons against Appalachian State (a one-point loss), Nebraska and South Florida and Central Michigan.
The close loss to CMU moved the Mocs up a spot in both the coaches' poll (to 15th) and the SN poll (to 13th). That ties the 2011 season for the highest ranking the program has reached in the Russ Huesman era. The Mocs have reached the top 10 three times in school history: twice in 1991 and once more in 1992. UTC's highest ranking was No. 9 after a 35-20 win at Boise State on Sept. 5, 1991.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com 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 ...