Henley: Don’t overthink this, committee: UTC is a playoff team

AP photo by Vasha Hunt / UTC football coach Rusty Wright walks the sideline during the Mocs' regular-season finale Saturday against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Sunday afternoon, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team will find out its fate.

Is there a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth approaching for the 7-4 Mocs? There should be.

They closed their regular-season schedule Saturday with a 66-10 loss at Football Bowl Subdivision power Alabama, but this has nothing to do with that result, obviously.

Let's take a macro view of the season, although I understand some fans would like to take a micro view and can point to the failures: the final 20 points the Mocs gave up when falling 41-27 at North Alabama in the season opener; the 52 points given up in a two-point (yeah, two-point) loss to Western Carolina at Finley Stadium; and the offensive struggles down the stretch in a 17-14 loss to Furman in the home finale two weeks ago.

If the Mocs had beaten Furman, they would have earned the Southern Conference's automatic bid into the 24-team playoffs (instead of the Paladins) and made this column pointless. The Mocs went 6-2 in league play, finishing in a tie for second with Mercer — a team the Mocs beat 22-10 — and a game ahead of Western Carolina, which dropped three of its final five games, including a shocking 27-24 loss to Virginia Military Institute on Saturday.

"That first one is on me," UTC coach Rusty Wright said, referring to the opener. "After that, these kids did what they were supposed to do to give themselves a chance. I promise you, if they change the narrative of how you finish the year to get somebody else in this year, you know, after last year ..."

It was just last year that UTC started the season 6-1, only to lose three of its final four games. Sure, that's the micro, but again, you've got the macro: Delaware did the same thing — finished 7-4, lost three of its final four — yet got into the playoffs.

The selection committee didn't view 7-4 Montana as a playoff team last year — until it did. People within UTC's camp believed the Mocs were in the playoffs over Montana, over North Dakota and over Delaware, only to find out they weren't.

Regardless, here we are again with the Mocs needing some help, some prayer, some something, just to get into the postseason for the first time since 2016.

"We've been in this spot for three years," 2022 All-American cornerback Kam Brown said this past week. "It's just kind of tiring, but at the same time we're just going to keep praying and hoping like we do every year."

ESPNU will televise the selection show at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

"I think we've put ourselves in position at least to have an opportunity, and after that, it's going to be what it is this week when everybody plays," Wright said. "Do I think it's fair that we (SoCon teams) play Alabama and Clemson and South Carolina and Auburn, and then you go out West and you may only play Stanford and Boise State?

"We can use stats, and we can use numbers. We can say this matches that, but you keep changing the narrative — it changes, so you've got to figure out a way to win, and it's never going to be perfect because you've got human beings involved in it."

UTC was ranked 16th by coaches and 18th by media in the final polls before the playoffs. This column is about the Mocs, but the fact that any team with a top-2o national ranking is having to sweat out the process is ridiculous, which suggests there is a problem with the criteria, the committee or the people who vote. If losing to North Alabama (and let's be clear, UTC losing to North Alabama is the only reason it's on the bubble to begin with) was going to be that big of an issue, then that should have been held against the Mocs in any of the final eight weeks that at least one group (either the coaches or the media) voted them into the top 25 of its poll.

I'm far from the smartest person in the world, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to leave a team like that out of the playoffs because of something that happened on Sept. 2 if it wasn't enough to keep them out of the top 25 on Nov. 18.

The Mocs also gave Mercer (a team most suggest is safely in the playoffs) its only home loss, and they won at Samford, which beat Big South/Ohio Valley Conference co-champion UT Martin 27-17 on Saturday.

Lastly, I don't know who made the Mocs' 2023 schedule, but they didn't do a very good job. Only one team in the country played for 10 consecutive weeks without an open date and was successful against a fully Division I schedule (Tarleton State, which is transitioning from Division II, won eight games, but one of those was against a D-II school; the other teams that went that long without rest were well below .500).

That team was the Mocs, whose greatest crime is a season-opening loss that wasn't enough to keep poll voters from recognizing them as one of the top 20 teams in the country but suddenly is a major talking point as to why they shouldn't be a playoff team.

If UTC isn't a playoff team, it should have never been a top-20 team. If UTC is a top-20 team (which FCS coaches and media agree is the case), then UTC is a playoff team.

It should be that simple.

But until then, we wait.


Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.