Wiedmer: Mocs need to be ETSU fans this weekend for any chance at FCS playoffs

Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / UTC football coach Rusty Wright and the Mocs will try to regroup quickly after a 10-6 loss at Mercer as they host The Citadel this Saturday to close their SoCon schedule and the regular season.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga junior defensive lineman Christian Smith knows what he'll be doing at 12:30 Sunday afternoon. So does senior offensive lineman Cole Strange.

They'll both be glued to the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision playoffs selection show on ESPNU, hopeful that the Mocs are one of 13 at-large selections for the 24-team tournament, which will begin Thanksgiving weekend.

"I feel we'll have a chance because of our strength of schedule," said Smith.

"Oh, absolutely," added Strange. "I think we can make it."

For all of the offseason and a good portion of the regular season, this wasn't a concern. The Mocs were not only going to make the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016, they were going to make some major noise once the postseason began. They had 72 of 76 letter winners back. They had, at least by some mathematical formulas, all their starters back, including long snapper, punter and kicker.

Avoid serious injuries and find a capable quarterback - not necessarily the next Tony Romo or Carson Wentz, to name but two outstanding former FCS level quarterbacks - just a competent game manager to avoid costly turnovers, and the sky should be the limit.

Unfortunately, the latter has never really happened. This is not to slam former starting QB Drayton Arnold or current one Cole Copeland. Each has put in considerable time and effort to be the best player he can be, but more games than not, the reason for those four defeats over UTC's first 10 games has at least partially been the quarterback. Not enough positive plays and too many negative ones, including last weekend's excruciating 10-6 loss at Mercer.

photo Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Coach Rusty Wright talks to his team after the Mocs practice on Tuesday, November 16, 2021 at Scrappy Moore Field. Senior Cole Strange was chosen to play in the Senior Bowl, an opportunity to be seen by scouts and possibly play in the NFL.

Or as UTC coach Rusty Wright said of that one, "We had more adversity (at Mercer) than we've had all year, and it's not even close."

So even a win, a MUST win at that, on Saturday when The Citadel and its tricky triple option offense come calling, won't come close to guaranteeing a playoff berth Sunday afternoon. However, lose to the Bulldogs and Sunday's a moot point. No need to watch. No need to pray to the football gods for a second chance. Just check your equipment back in and call it a season, albeit a largely disappointing one.

But for now, and in expectation of a Mocs win at Finley Stadium, could the committee take pity on the Mocs and their stellar defense? Could they focus on the strong schedule, the narrow loss at SEC East runner-up Kentucky, the home win over East Tennessee State and the road rout of Samford and put it in the field?

Is there reasonable reason for such a mulligan?

To view the latest Jeff Sagarin FCS ratings alone is to answer "Yes."

Sagarin has long been one of the most respected if somewhat controversial names in sports ratings systems. He appears weekly in USA Today ranking everything from college basketball teams to the NFL. The NCAA Tournament has often used the MIT grad's formulas to help select its field.

His most recent FCS playoff prediction has both UTC and East Tennessee State in the playoffs but with a glitch - he has the Mocs as the SoCon champ, which is an impossibility at this point, since the winner of Saturday's ETSU-Mercer game will win the league with a single loss, while UTC (assuming it beats The Citadel) and the ETSU-Mercer loser will each have two conference defeats.

Mocs fans should pull hard for ETSU in that one for these reasons: 1) The Mocs handed the Bucs their lone league loss. 2) One of Mercer's seven wins came against Point University, an NAIA program, so should Mercer lose and UTC win, the Mocs would have seven FCS victories to but six for the Bears.

Also, if UTC and ETSU wind up tied for second, while the Mocs did beat the Bucs, ETSU won at FBS member Vanderbilt while UTC lost at UK.

All of this is speculation, of course. The committee could choose to take the SoCon winner only. It could easily leave the Mocs as the odd man out among UTC, ETSU and Mercer.

All we know for sure, to use Wright's words, is that come 1:30 Saturday afternoon at Finley, "It will be the hardest game we've played all year. We'll see what happens when it's over."

The guess here, and it's strictly a guess, is that if both the Mocs and Bucs win, both are in. But if anything speaks to the frustrations of this season, it may be UTC having to cheer for old and bitter rival ETSU to win the SoCon.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.