The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team's season ended Saturday with a 45-0 loss at second-ranked Alabama. Despite the lopsided result, the Mocs walked off the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium with their heads up and their pride intact.
"I can walk away feeling real great because I helped contribute to this big project," senior defensive tackle B.J. Taylor said of the rebuilding of the Mocs' program.
A year after UTC went 1-11 and lost all eight Southern Conference games by an average of 27.6 points, the Mocs finished 6-5 -- their first winning season since 2005. The Mocs also went 4-4 in the SoCon to finish in a tie for fourth with Georgia Southern.
The slogan for this season, the first under coach Russ Huesman, was to "Restore the Glory." The Mocs might not have made it all the way there, but some respect and dignity has been restored.
"I think that's true," Huesman said. "From within, I think these kids have a little bit of pride about themselves and this university now. I think the community does, too, so I would say that we gained some respectability, even throughout the league.
"I think people throughout the league are saying, 'Hey, Chattanooga may be scary some day.'"
The season started with a win over Division II Glenville State in front of 14,002 fans at Finley Stadium. Then came a home loss to Furman, followed by wins over Presbyterian, Wofford and Samford.
After that, the Mocs lost at Georgia Southern and Elon, followed by a come-from-behind win over Western Carolina and a tough loss at Appalachian State.
On Nov. 14, the Mocs rallied from 21-0 down to beat The Citadel 31-28 in UTC's home finale. The team celebrated that win, which was their sixth of the season, like it was a playoff victory.
Sitting in his office Sunday afternoon, Huesman reflected on his first season as a head coach and said two games stood out to him the most.
"The Samford game, a big (14-7) road win against a good football team, and The Citadel comeback were probably the two proudest moments that I had this year," he said.
A lot of factors worked in the Mocs' favor this season. In addition to bringing in Huesman and a new coaching staff, which helped reinvigorate the players and the fan base, quarterback B.J. Coleman transferred from the University of Tennessee.
In addition, the Mocs had a favorable schedule, due in part to Wofford being down this season due to numerous injuries to key players. The six teams UTC beat finished with a combined overall record of 22-44.
Huesman inherited a downtrodden team that had won a combined six games during the previous three seasons. He said one of his first priorities was to make football fun for the players again.
From the first practice of the spring to the final play on Saturday, the Mocs enjoyed the games and being together. Nobody had more fun than senior wide receiver Blue Cooper, who finished the season with 84 catches for 824 yards and seven touchdowns.
Cooper, who was finally able to play a whole season without missing time due to injury, was second in the SoCon in receptions and seventh nationally in receptions per game (7.6). Senior defensive end Josh Beard finished with 12 sacks, the most in the league and tied for the most in the FCS.
"I think we gained a lot of respect, from other teams and people around the city," Cooper said. "The main thing that matters is we started to believe in us."