Mocs were hurt by late-season skid, SoCon's perception

UTC Athletics photo by Emily Baustert / UTC offensive lineman Curtis McClendon (52) waits for the snap during Saturday's regular-season finale at Western Carolina. After six years with the Mocs, the Chattanooga native's collegiate career ended with that 32-29 loss when the team was not selected Sunday for the FCS playoffs.

CULLOWHEE, N.C. — McClendon Curtis sat in a chair, towel over his head, late Saturday afternoon.

Spirits were understandably low for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offensive lineman, who was slowly coming to the realization that his collegiate career was likely over after the Mocs were upset 32-29 at Western Carolina in the regular-season and Southern Conference finale.

Sure, there was a slim hope the Mocs would get a reprieve and be included in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, but it was never likely. UTC had lost three of its final four games, and with the lack of respect the SoCon as a whole receives nationally, the chances weren't good the Mocs would be included.

The mood was similar for defensive lineman Devonnsha Maxwell, a fellow sixth-year senior who, like Curtis, has played only for the Mocs in college and was a team captain this year. After breaking the school and SoCon record for career sacks, with his lone quarterback takedown Saturday pushing his total to 37.5 and eclipsing Mocs great Davis Tull (37), Maxwell had at least one reason to be happy.

He was anything but.

"I'm hurt," Maxwell said before guessing about the likelihood of a 12th game for the Mocs. "Nine times out of 10, that's it for me with Chattanooga football, and that's hard for me, to be honest."

Those fears were confirmed early Sunday afternoon, when the Mocs (7-4) were not awarded one of the 13 at-large bids for the 24-team FCS playoffs. UTC's finish hurt its chances, but probably not as much as the perception of the SoCon itself.

Samford went undefeated in the league, with its lone regular-season loss to Football Bowl Subdivision power Georgia — the reigning national champion and currently the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings — yet the SoCon champ received only the sixth of eight seeds awarded.

League runner-up Furman finished 9-2 overall and got in, but the third-place Mocs had to watch Delaware — which, like UTC, went 7-4 and lost three of its final four games — receive a postseason berth despite finishing sixth in the Colonial Athletic Association.

The Big Sky got five teams in, and so did the CAA. That included Richmond, which is led by Russ Huesman, whose eight-year tenure as UTC's head coach ended with three straight playoff appearances from 2014-16. The Mocs haven't reached the postseason since.

The Missouri Valley had three teams get in, but the SoCon had the same number as the Patriot League and Southland Conference, both perceived to be worse than the SoCon.

That doesn't absolve the Mocs, whose loss to the Catamounts in the season finale continued a trend of disappointing finishes for the program. This year was supposed to be the year, but so was last year. Last year was worse in terms of perception, considering how the pandemic-delayed 2020-21 season had unceremoniously ended with the Mocs opting out with games to play that spring but hopes pinned on fall success, but this year hurts no less.

Last season it was five total losses by 30 points, with one of those by 10 in the season opener to Austin Peay. This year the three FCS losses were by four points at Furman, by 11 to Samford at Finley Stadium and by three at Western Carolina. Both seasons ended with back-to-back losses when a win would have likely been enough for a playoff spot.

But this fall, Rusty Wright's fourth season as head coach at his alma mater, is notable for being the first time the Mocs had seven wins in a single campaign since that 2016 playoff run. In the first seven years that UTC was a Division I program (1977-83) it won at least seven games each season, and the following season it won its first SoCon title. Since then, the Mocs have reached that seven-win mark just seven times, including from 2013-16, a span in which they totaled 36 wins, celebrated a trio of SoCon titles and received the aforementioned three FCS playoff bids.

So while the Mocs have struggled to take that final step for more than half a decade now, the past two senior classes seem to have put them on the right track.

"This has been a great ride. I wouldn't want to do it anywhere else," said Curtis, a Chattanooga native who prepped at Central and is an NFL prospect. "I enjoyed every opportunity I've got here, the ups and downs that I've had being here. There were times I wondered if I was doing the right thing (by staying), but since 2019 I've had the opportunities to keep continuing to grow as a player and as a leader.

"It's been a ride; I wouldn't rather do it with nobody else, to have an opportunity to have a whole new offensive line room and lead them to our standard, and the team? I wouldn't have it no other way. This senior group, we've reached different heights. I'm appreciative that we all rode it out. My boys? I appreciate every one of them."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.