WOFFORD (5-3, 3-1) at UTC (6-3, 5-0)
Saturday, 1 p.m., Finley Stadium
The goal is well within sight, but there's still one last hurdle to clear before the race is won.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team is tantalizingly close to claiming its first outright Southern Conference championship in 30 years and the automatic FCS playoff berth that comes with it, needing only to beat Wofford at home on Saturday.
But the memory of coming up short under similar circumstances last year produces a cautionary tone as the Mocs prepare this week.
"The job's not accomplished yet," UTC coach Russ Huesman said. "Not even close. We've got a lot of work to do. If we don't take care of business Saturday then we haven't accomplished what we set out to. We haven't done anything yet. Nothing. We have done nothing right now. I know our players believe that too.
"Ask me after the game, if we win, what it would mean to win a championship or make the playoffs, but there's too much left to do now. I'm just thinking about how we can get to 6-0. That's the objective."
Facing the same scenario near the end of last season, needing only to win at Samford to lock up sole possession of the title and the certainty of a playoff spot, the Mocs lost a heartbreaking three-point overtime decision. That loss created a three-way tie atop the standings and when the postseason brackets were announced days later the Mocs were the only one of those three left out.
That haunting memory drove UTC players through offseason workouts and has helped keep the team focused through this year's league schedule, producing a perfect 5-0 record so far.
"We had our fate in our own hands," UTC senior tight end Faysal Shafaat said. "We could've taken it, but we didn't and had to wait and let the committee decide and we wound up on the outside. That's what we've talked about all year is keeping it in our hands and deciding it ourselves.
"Ever since last year we try not to worry about what everybody says or the rankings or any of that. We just come out here and try to get better in practice every day and then go out and execute and show what we can do in the game. That's the same approach we have this week."
Having already avenged the loss to Samford earlier, the Mocs know they can finally erase an entire year's worth of frustration in one afternoon.
But to bury last year's disappointment and take the next step in the program's growth, the Mocs will have to get past one of its toughest nemesis. Wofford, which had last week off to rest and prepare, also has the potential for earning at least a share of the conference title. The Terriers have won 11 of the 20 previous meetings and two of the last three games were decided by less than a touchdown.
"Every game this year was a big game because of our goals," UTC senior defensive end Zach Rayl said. "We knew we had to win every conference game just to be safe. We don't want to have to worry about whether we get an at-large bit. We want to win it all by ourselves and know that we're going to the playoffs.
"This is the best we've ever been, so I like our chances. I believe it's going to happen. And if it does, it's going to be a big weight off our shoulders."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.