Four or five weeks ago, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football season still very much a work in progress, Mocs coach Russ Huesman made an interesting observation.
"Everybody thinks we have to get it done this year, that the sky is going to fall if we don't make the playoffs," he said. "And I want that as much as anybody, especially for our seniors. But I happen to think we're going to be a pretty good football team next year, too."
When the NCAA's FCS playoff selection committee failed to include UTC in its 24-team playoff format on Sunday, next year began for Huesman and his team. Next year has also arrived for the Tennessee Vols, Florida Gators and, to some extent, the Georgia Bulldogs.
UT and Florida, of course, locked up losing records on Saturday, which means this is the first year since 1978 that they'll both be home for the holidays at the same time.
In Georgia's case, quarterback Aaron Murray's career-ending knee injury in Saturday's rout of Kentucky means the Bulldog coaching staff can find out two games prior to spring practice (this week's regular-season finale against Georgia Tech and a bowl contest) how well Hutson Mason handles being the starting quarterback, rather than merely subbing for Murray against the SEC's worst team.
And all three of those SEC situations figure to grow more interesting in the weeks to come, especially Florida, where third-year coach Will Muschamp probably needs some NASA creation to keep his seat from frying his fanny after Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern.
Not that the Eagles technically ended the Gators' season. That honor goes to No. 2 Florida State this week, which figures to put 50 or more points on its in-state brother, which just might insure Muschamp's ouster. Here's also thinking that head-coach-in-waiting position he turned his back on at Texas by taking the Gator gig is now also gone.
Then again, his contract was extended to 2017 in July and increased to nearly $3 million a year. So the question to UF athletic director Jeremy Foley becomes whether or not it's cheaper and wiser to stick with Muschamp, knowing ticket sales and donations might drop, or buy him out, then be forced to cough up another $3 mil a year to hire someone else who may or not be better than Muschamp.
One thought: If you could hire Nick Saban for $6 million a year, would you? Of course, you would. So if it cost $6 million a year for the next four years to find someone capable of challenging Saban, well, that's the cost of doing business in the SEC, and when you strive to have the success that Florida does in all sports, football must be successful. Very successful.
Maybe Muschamp can still create that success, but if Foley fires him, it will most likely be because he believes a quick turnaround is impossible ... or the boosters have let it be known that if Muschamp isn't gone, Foley might soon follow his football coach out the door.
As for UT, the only thing you need to know about the direction the Vols are headed under Butch Jones is to listen to departing senior Daniel Hood after Saturday's loss to Vanderbilt.
Said Hood: "I believe the culture is finally starting to change. This week [the Kentucky game], we seniors have to set the foundation. Even if it means us staying around until January, we have to get these young guys in the weight room working out. We cost them 15 practices [by not being bowl eligible]. We can still do the right thing by leading them in the right direction."
Huesman's Mocs are already headed in the right direction. Maybe a missed field goal at Samford officially cost them a SoCon title and an automatic playoff berth. But so did a missed official's call in a narrow loss at Georgia Southern. Without that error, the Samford loss would have meant nothing.
Without that error, the Mocs could have hosted Tennessee State this weekend, reprising the game that drew the biggest crowd in Finley Stadium history (22,642, 1997), especially if TSU brought its band.
Instead, this team finally seems to understand what it takes to win. True, there are serious graduation losses, particularly on defense. But the FCS level is also the closest thing college football has to the NFL's waiver wire.
Every FBS player unhappy with his playing time can transfer to UTC without sitting out and join a team that could easily be the SoCon's top program this time next year.
Until then, fans of the Mocs and Vols and Gators should consider making a pledge to take half the money they would have spent on bowl games or playoff contests and give it to the less fortunate. It won't guarantee a better football record in 2014 but it would surely get this year's holiday season pointed in the right direction.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org