UTC (0-1) vs. Jacksonville State (0-1)
Saturday, 6 p.m.
Taharin Tyson thought about giving the standard, politically correct answer. But after pausing to consider the question, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior fullback brushed the long dreadlocks from his face and decided instead to be honest.
"Absolutely, this is one of the biggest games I can remember ever being a part of here," Tyson said. "It's one of the biggest games I've ever played in, period."
Tyson succinctly summed up the magnitude of Saturday's home game against ninth-ranked Jacksonville State for UTC's 13th-ranked program.
When it comes to knowing the ingredients that constitute what makes a "big game," the Mocs have no better expert than Tyson. At every level he's played he has been a part of playoff atmospheres and games with championship implications. He helped Alcoa High School to an eye-popping four-year record of 58-2 that included four state championships, and he has been part of some pretty important games during UTC's program growth, including last year's team that claimed a share of the Southern Conference title.
"We feel like we're fighting for our lives every week now," Tyson continued. "Every game is a playoff game for us now. We left it up to somebody else last year to decide if we made the playoffs, so we don't want to leave it up to anybody this year. That's why every game is a huge game for us.
"This one is going to be a dogfight to the end, and as a player you want to be in those type games where it comes down to the very end before it's decided. It shows if you're a man or not."
Although it isn't a conference matchup, and only the second game of the season for each team, there are definite playoff implications riding on the outcome. Both teams are coming off losses to FBS opponents from the state of Michigan, which only highlights the importance of avoiding an 0-2 hole to start a season of high expectations for the Mocs and Gamecocks.
"We know we have to take care of us first, but we're not fooling anybody. It's the No. 9 team in the country coming in here, so, yeah, it is a big game," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said. "It's big because we're playing an excellent team. You don't have to say playoff implications or anything like that, because it's enough that you're playing a great team.
"It's going to be a good game, no question about that."
Saturday will mark only the third time that the Mocs and an opponent were both nationally ranked going into a game at Finley Stadium. UTC won both previous meetings against nationally ranked foes, including a 21-point defeat of 10th-ranked JSU in 2011.
"No doubt, Chattanooga is in the same position we are in," first-year Gamecocks coach John Grass said during his news conference this week. "We talked about this as a team that we are both 0-1 and this does have playoff implications. It has the feel of a playoff-caliber game because they are a playoff-caliber team and I feel the same way about us.
"It is a huge game for both teams, and I have told our team that it is an important game. There is a lot at stake for both teams this week, but that is not to say that the loser of the game doesn't make the playoffs."
The Mocs also were No. 13 when they played third-ranked Appalachian State in 2011, but that game was on the road.
Jacksonville State claimed a thrilling three-point win over UTC in their last meeting two years ago. And as Tyson pointed out, the Mocs are actually looking to break a three-game losing streak dating back to last season when they lost in overtime to Samford and then ended the season with a loss at Alabama.
"You want to say each game's the biggest, but this one, this is a rivalry game for us and there's a lot riding on it," said Mocs senior defensive lineman Zach Rayl. "Coming off a loss last week, we want to come out and prove a point for sure. We're trying to win like always, but this is like a playoff game for us.
"We're thinking we're a championship team now. That's what we're building toward. And we have to win games like this to get there."
Tickets for the game are available by calling 266-MOCS (6627) or by visiting the UTC ticket office inside McKenzie Arena, located next to Gate 1. The ticket office is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The ticket booth in the First Tennessee Pavilion, next to Finley Stadium, is open today from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and also on game days, beginning at noon. The best way to save time when buying tickets is at GoMocs.com and print them at home.
A downtown pep rally is planned for today at Miller Plaza, beginning at noon. Saturday's game is a "whiteout," with fans encouraged to wear white to Finley Stadium. The Mocs will wear white-on-white uniforms and there will be plenty of giveaways, including white T-shirts at the gate.
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 ...