MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Maybe next month.
Maybe when the NCAA allows University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield to return to the playing field instead of standing on the sideline in his No. 15 UTC jersey and shorts due to his four-game suspension for academic shortcomings.
Maybe then new UTC coach Tom Arth will get to show his reported genius with X's and O's. Maybe then a Mocs team rated in the FCS top 15 when Saturday night's game against top-six Jacksonville State began will start to play like it.
Maybe then UTC can quit thinking about how vulnerable it looked in losing 27-13 to the Gamecocks and start thinking about a winning season. And a fourth straight playoff berth. And how good the Mocs still can be.
But this was not one of those nights.
"Too many errors," Arth said afterward. "Biggest thing is to learn from our mistakes. We've got to make the most of our opportunities."
There are never many opportunities when you play Jacksonville State. Emergency starting quarterback Nick Tiano barely overthrew a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter. Several passes were dropped that might have turned fourth downs into first downs.
"You hate to speculate," Arth said. "But a lack of execution. Too many penalties. That's a good team. You don't need to give them any help."
You don't. But this also is what happens when a team that might become good runs into one that's not already beyond good but knows it could be great.
A single stat: Heading into the fourth quarter, Jax State running back Roc Thomas had more total yardage (180 yards) than the whole UTC team (135 yards). It's not that the Mocs showed no promise. The defense picked off a couple of passes. Tiano — pressed into service when UTC found out Thursday night that Bennifield would be suspended — passed for more than 100 yards in the opening half without an interception.
But the offense also rushed for for 13 yards on 19 carries through the first three periods. And that's against Jax State — good though the Gamecocks may be — not Louisiana State.
If the UTC offensive line remains this overmatched going forward, not even the return of Bennifield will save this season.
But it's also just a single game. And a difficult one at that. Even had Bennifield been eligible, it's doubtful either his experience or skill set could have reversed the outcome of this one. Not impossible. But doubtful.
And there's no doubt how Arth, known for his positive nature, will couch this going forward. After LSU he'll likely tell the Mocs they won't see another team as good as this one the rest of the season. And when they do they'll be better prepared for it.
"We're so close," he said more than once in the postgame news conference. "We can clean this up. That's exciting. But that's also frustrating."
And he coached to end on an exciting note in the final minutes. Coached with defiance rather than defeatism. Down 27-6, the Mocs drove and scored a late touchdown. Inside the final two minutes, Arth used all his timeouts, knowing that however unlikely or implausible, a quick score and a recovered onside kick could give him at least one Hail Mary chance for victory.
Yet that didn't happen, and what happens going forward is anyone's guess. But there have been these moments of ineptness before against Jax State, only to see the regular season roll into the postseason. It can happen again with this team.
Again, this was certainly not the scenario Arth imagined over much of the summer as he prepped his Mocs and his staff for how to shock the FCS world in his first game as Maestro of the Mocs. He imagined he'd have Bennifield to perfectly execute his creative game plan against the Gamecocks.
He had often stunned more powerful foes on the Division III level during those four seasons he was compiling a 40-8 record at John Carroll. He would concoct a similar bit of Tom foolery against Jax State, rightly believing he had the element of surprise on his side, since there was no way the Gamecocks could know as much about him as he knew of them.
Instead, he got the worst surprise of all less than 48 hours from kickoff — his starting quarterback out, which left Mississippi State transfer Tiano to run an offense he'd never previously run in a real game.
"I felt ready to go," Tiano said afterward. "I'd been practicing for this summer, to be ready if needed."
Now the Mocs need to move along. Quickly. LSU is two weeks away down on the bayou. Neither the Tigers nor their fans will feel sorry for Arth, or Bennifield, or the program. They'll be better than Jax State. Perhaps much better.
Arth's OK with that. In fact, he seems to welcome that.
"We will be better," he said.
Not can be. Will be. One game into the season, it's what every Mocs fan wants and needs to hear after watching what they hoped they wouldn't see.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org