UTC football team makes playoffs for first time since 2016

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / UTC receiver Javin Whatley, left, and tight end Camden Overton, center, celebrate with running back Lance Jackson after he scored a touchdown against The Citadel in a SoCon game on Sept. 16 at Finley Stadium.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / UTC receiver Javin Whatley, left, and tight end Camden Overton, center, celebrate with running back Lance Jackson after he scored a touchdown against The Citadel in a SoCon game on Sept. 16 at Finley Stadium.

Gino Appleberry said there was a “fire in his heart” last November when he didn't hear the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's name called as one of the 24 teams in the field for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“I didn’t want to feel this year what I felt last year or the year before that,” the UTC senior running back said.

He won’t.

The Mocs heard their name called Sunday afternoon, receiving one of 14 at-large bids available after missing out on the Southern Conference's automatic berth, and UTC is in the playoffs for the first time in seven years. After a 7-4 regular season that left them on the playoff bubble, the Mocs will play a 12th game when they visit United Athletic Conference champion Austin Peay (9-2) on Saturday in Clarksville, Tennessee, with kickoff set for 3 p.m. Eastern.

The eight seeded teams in the bracket receive byes, so there are eight games in the first round as well as the second.

The selection committee made its final choices after a Saturday with some notable results for FCS teams contending for postseason invitations. UTC may have been one of the final four in the bracket, but that's better than being one of the first four out — which is where the Mocs resided last year.

The result this time was their first playoff bid since three consecutive trips from 2014-16 (and fifth overall, with the first way back in 1984), as well as a clear sign of progress for the program in year five with Rusty Wright as head coach at his alma mater, although it hasn’t always felt that would be the case.

After all, UTC also finished 7-4 in 2022, doing so against a schedule that Wright said “was better” than this year's, but that did not end the playoff drought.

This season, UTC won at Mercer, an 8-3 overall team that also got in the field after sharing second place in the SoCon's final standings with the Mocs at 6-2 in league play. UTC won at Samford, which on Saturday posted a 27-17 home win against Big South/Ohio Valley Conference co-champion UT Martin.

The Mocs also lost by two points to Western Carolina, which finished 7-4 but was one of the first teams left out this season, and by three to SoCon champ Furman, which is seeded seventh in the bracket. There was of course, the Mocs' two-touchdown loss at North Alabama in the season opener on the first weekend of September, as well as Saturday’s 66-10 handling by Football Bowl Subdivision power Alabama.

Even with those potentially costly losses and despite their own frustrating personal history in recent years when it came to the playoffs — or lack thereof — one stat showed overall history favored the Mocs. Since 2013, 22 teams have won at least six SoCon games in a single season, and all but two have made the playoffs: UTC missed in 2013, when it was part of a three-way tie for first in the league, and Mercer got left out in 2021, when the Bears had only six wins against Division I competition.

On Sunday, the Mocs managed not to make a second appearance on that unlucky list.

Now the growth of the program can be evident in the steps that have been taken every season under Wright. The Mocs went 6-6 in 2019, 3-2 in the 2020 season that was delayed by the pandemic and played mostly in the following spring, 6-5 in fall 2021 and now 7-4 in back-to-back seasons — with the difference in those last two obvious.

The 2023 Mocs will have a chance to add to their win total.

“I couldn’t be happier for this group,” Wright said. “They’ve got an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done here in a while, and I’m excited for them for that fact. I wanted these guys to feel what that feels like, to go be one of 24 that’s left. It’s a special deal. When you’re one of the final 24 left, that’s a special deal.

“Everything matters. It all gets magnified in these situations, but I think they’ll be ready for it. I’m looking forward to it.”

If the Mocs can get past the Governors, they’ll earn a rematch with Furman (9-2), which has Thanksgiving weekend off before hosting in the second round.

UTC hosted the Paladins in their regular-season matchup on Nov. 4 at Finley Stadium, and the home team led for most of the game before a late touchdown lifted Furman to a 17-14 win in the de facto SoCon championship contest. Without the security of an automatic bid, UTC players thought that final chance to make the playoffs had eluded them — again.

“After that game, I was really all over the place. Just tore up in my gut, really, because I knew that was a game that we should have had,” said senior edge rusher Jay Person, a former Bradley Central standout who started his collegiate career at Appalachian State but has been with UTC since 2019.

“It feels good knowing that I’ve been here as long as Coach Wright has been here, sticking through the hard times, the ups and downs," Person said. "This is a real good feeling for me, I know it’s a real good feeling for my teammates, getting to go to the playoffs for the first time since I’ve got here.”

Reigning national champion South Dakota State (11-0) is No. 1 in the bracket, and in addition to the Jackrabbits and Furman, the seeded teams are No. 2 Montana (10-1), No. 3 South Dakota (9-2), No. 4 Idaho (8-3), No. 5 Albany (9-3), No. 6 Montana State (8-3) and No. 8 Villanova (9-2).

Besides the Mocs facing the Govs, the first-round matchups are: Gardner-Webb (7-4) at Mercer (8-3), winner plays South Dakota State; Lafayette (9-2) at Delaware (8-3), winner plays Montana; Sacramento State (7-4) at North Dakota (7-4), winner plays South Dakota; Nicholls (6-4) at Southern Illinois (7-4), winner plays Idaho; North Carolina Central (9-2) at Richmond (8-3), winner plays Albany; Drake (8-3) at North Dakota State (8-3), winner plays Montana State; Duquesne (7-4) at Youngstown State (7-4), winner plays Villanova.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

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