Wiedmer: Mocs-Skyhawks a 'measuring stick' for both programs

Wiedmer: Mocs-Skyhawks a 'measuring stick' for both programs

September 13th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

In this Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, file photo, UT-Martin head coach Jason Simpson shouts at a referee during the Mocs' season opening football game against the Skyhawks at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

This is the week we begin to learn just what this University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team can become.

Yes, opening foe Jacksonville State plays in the same Football Championship Subdivision as the Mocs. And, yes, there were moments of great promise against Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse LSU, regardless of the 45-10 final score.

But for very different reasons, new UTC coach Tom Arth, his staff and players were up against it in both of their first two games, forced into situations they could not realistically prep for — due to either a vast talent differential (LSU), the untimely four-game suspension of fifth-year senior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield for NCAA issues, or both.

Those disadvantages theoretically end at 6:04 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium against UT-Martin's Skyhawks. Not because UTM necessarily is weaker than UTC, as former Mocs offensive coordinator Jason Simpson has done a marvelous job during his 12 years at the Ohio Valley Conference school of building a program that both wins and excites, which don't always go hand in hand.

Merely consider that through 11 complete seasons — the Skyhawks are 1-1 this year following last Saturday's loss to Ole Miss — Simpson has posted seven winning records and only three losing ones while never finishing worse than .500 in OVC action. Beyond that, Martin's loss to Ole Miss was closer (45-23) than the Mocs' setback at LSU.

Chattanooga head coach Tom Arth, front right, yells to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)

Chattanooga head coach Tom Arth, front right, yells...

Photo by Rusty Costanza

But as Simpson said of the Mocs earlier this week, "They're good. They're a Top 10 (actually No. 15) FCS opponent. It's going to be a challenge on the road."

Historians of both programs might recall that it was such a challenge in the 2013 opener that Martin rolled into Finley Stadium and shocked the Mocs 31-21, a defeat that likely made that UTC squad the last one to fail to reach the NCAA playoffs.

And that could happen again. Especially with Bennifield still shelved for another two games. But if it happens, at least it won't be because UTC is overmatched across the board.

After all, whether fair or not, the Skyhawks haven't seen the postseason since Simpson got them there in his first season in 2006. No offense to UT-Martin or any other OVC team not named Jacksonville State, but that league is not yet the Southern Conference. At least it isn't seen as such.

UTC, however — even without Bennifield and linebacker Dale Warren, whom the NCAA suspended for the season's first six games — again is expected to reach the postseason. In fact, judging from defensive tackle Taylor Reynolds' comments to this sports section's Gene Henley in today's paper — "When we get to the playoffs, it's one and done (if we aren't ready)" — it's a foregone conclusion.

Notice Reynolds didn't say "if we get to the playoffs"; he said "when." That's a huge difference and it screams justifiable confidence on the positive end while at least hinting of possible complacency on the other, as if the program has reached that enviable if somewhat dangerous level where it believes it is its right rather than privilege to make the playoffs.

Still, that also strongly speaks to what former coach Russ Huesman built and what Arth hopes to maintain, if not grow.

Perhaps that's also why Arth, during Tuesday's news conference, said of Saturday, "We talk about it all the time within our program: We're not just playing for ourselves; we're playing for our school and our city."

That's not added pressure so much as needed perspective. Making it about more than you should make it tougher to possibly take a game such as this for granted, because when you're 0-2 there are no gimmes on the schedule.

So here we go with a home opener against an opponent far more likely to paint an accurate picture of these 2017 Mocs than either Jacksonville State or LSU did. Beyond that, this is a game that should become a near-annual matchup rather than a pairing that's taken place only four times previously.

Or as Simpson said of a contest that pits the school with the most college football victories in the Volunteer State since 2010 (UTC) against the program with the third-most wins over that time span: "It doesn't make or break either program. These games are fun. It's a good measuring stick."

It's certainly the most accurate measuring stick the Mocs have faced to date.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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