Wiedmer: Can football Mocs still become the "best team in the country"?

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga Mocs linebacker Kam Jones (57) hits Wofford Terriers running back Ryan Lovelace (28) during the football game between UTC and the Wofford Terriers at Finley Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It was supposed to be easy, this University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team's quest to not only reach the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, but make some noise once it got there.

After all, 72 of 76 letter winners returned from that half-baked, half-completed spring season. And depending on who you talked to, the Mocs also returned all 25 starters if you included the placekicker, punter and long snapper.

With numbers such as that, what could possibly go wrong?

Two months later, we know what could go wrong. Painfully so. The opener against Austin Peay went wrong. The road trip to Southern Conference foe Virginia Military Institute went wrong. The money game at Kentucky didn't exactly go wrong, given that the Mocs wound up on the short but highly respectable end of a 28-23 score to a Wildcats squad currently ranked 12th in the latest Associated Press poll. But hoping to gain favor with the FCS Selection Committee by way of a loss is always a dicey proposition.

And because of that, the next game that goes wrong, beginning with Saturday's Homecoming tilt against dangerous Furman, will pretty much guarantee that UTC will be on the wrong side of the FCS playoffs when they begin in late November.

"Very surprising," said junior linebacker Kam Jones when asked about the rude awakening the Mocs experienced to start this season. "No one wanted to start the way we did. But I think we're starting to play the way we need to play. We're excited for Homecoming. Lots of hype and energy."

Head coach Rusty Wright would certainly agree with that assessment.

"Biggest thing about last week (the 55-13 win at Samford) was that we came out the second half and played like we're supposed to play," said Wright. "We didn't let them back in the football game."

Indeed, if this is the standard moving forward, if the performance at Samford becomes the rule rather than the exception, everything the Mocs have hoped to achieve - a deep playoff run, if not the school's first national championship in the sport - remains in front of them.

"We did a good job of playing as one," said Jones of the Samford win. "Our goal is to be the best in the country. We're always trying to top our last game."

Let UTC win out - beginning against the Paladins - and it's all but inconceivable that the FCS Selection Committee would deny them a chance to wind up as the best in the country by omitting them from the 24-team playoff.

To repeat, the Mocs have that narrow loss at UK. They are the only team thus far to beat SoCon rival East Tennessee State, which is currently ranked 14th in the FCS Coaches Poll. And they lost in overtime to VMI, which is ranked 18th in that same coaches poll.

Beyond that, UTC is currently the first team outside the coaches poll, receiving 55 votes. Beat Furman, which is also receiving votes - especially if it's an impressive win - and the Mocs should soon again be ranked, as they were to start the season.

On the other hand, the SoCon isn't as highly regarded as it once was. ETSU is the highest ranked team and that No. 14 ranking comes with its lone loss at UTC and with a win at Vanderbilt. Even by winning out against Furman, at Wofford and Mercer and at home against The Citadel, none of those victories - and they must all be victories - figure to move the needle much with the selection committee.

"I have thought," said seventh year offensive lineman Harrison Moon at Tuesday's media luncheon, "that I may be down to my last three Tuesdays of football after this week."

Win out and Moon will probably have at least one more Tuesday of work past the Nov. 20 game against The Citadel. Play as the Mocs did against Samford and he may have more Tuesdays than that.

"Consistency, that's what this group has got to find," said Wright. "Find it. Keep it. Manage it."

As Halloween weekend approaches, the trick is to treat each of these last four games as if it's the Mocs' last chance to make a positive impression on the FCS selection committee. Because a single loss and UTC's goal to finish the season as the best team in the country will be over.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com