Not that long ago, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football program was ecstatic about being picked to finish fourth in the Southern Conference.
That was in 2012.
Times have changed.
Southern Conference Preseason Rankings
(Total points listed, with first-place votes in parentheses)
UTC (7) 49
Samford (1) 40
Western Carolina 38
The Citadel 18
UTC (29) 239
Western Carolina (1) 190
The Citadel 82
For the second consecutive season, the Mocs were the preseason pick to win the conference at media day for SoCon football Wednesday in Spartanburg, S.C. UTC received 29 of 30 first-place votes in the media poll and seven of eight in the coaches' poll.
Samford was second in the coaches' poll, while Western Carolina was second in the media poll.
UTC head coach Russ Huesman said the Mocs — who went 7-0 against league competition last season to win an outright SoCon title for the first time — don't shy away from such rankings and predictions. Players are even provided with a guide that lists all preseason rankings, along with the preseason All-SoCon team.
"I figure the guys are smart enough to where they see and know, so for me to act like it's not out there makes no sense," Huesman said. "The ranking is nice; it means we had a good year and we have some guys coming back, and that's a good thing.
"You still have to play. You want to end up first, but I think people realize we have good players coming back."
A number of those players were recognized Wednesday. Quarterback Jacob Huesman, the coach's son, was the preseason pick to win SoCon offensive player of the year, having won the postseason award the past two seasons. He was one of 12 Mocs selected to preseason all-conference teams, including eight who received first-team honors. On the offensive side, Huesman was joined by lineman Corey Levin, who won the 2014 Jacobs Blocking Award as the best lineman in the SoCon.
Defensive linemen Keionta Davis and Josh Freeman were first-team selections, as were Dee Virgin and Lucas Webb in the secondary and Nakevion Leslie at linebacker. Henrique Ribeiro was the first-team kicker.
"All of the preseason awards and rankings are nice," Jacob Huesman said. "It's nice to be recognized by the teams and coaches around us, but really it's about what happens at the end of the season.
"Hopefully they're still talking about us at that time."
Offensive linemen Jacob Revis and Synjen Herren were second-team picks, along with receiver C.J. Board, while Cedric Nettles was a second-team defensive back.
Former Calhoun standout Chandler Curtis, a rising sophomore at Mercer, was the return specialist for the first team, while former Baylor standout John Mackey was a second-team defensive lineman as he prepares for his senior season at Furman.
Despite UTC's defensive line being a tentative area of concern in terms of depth, the Mocs had more players selected to the preseason first team this season — Davis and Freeman — than they did last season, when it turned out to be their biggest strength. A year ago, current New Orleans Saints rookie Davis Tull was the only preseason pick.
The Mocs have to replace four defensive linemen: Tull, Derrick Lott — who is in the Tennessee Titans' preseason camp — Zach Rayl and Danny Ring.
"It's all about the next man up," Freeman said. "I want to lead this group and be the best leader I can and help the other guys learn. We have a lot of guys eager to play and ready for the opportunity."
'Helmets and Heels' clinic set for Friday
The UTC coaching staff will host a women's football clinic at 6 p.m. Friday at Finley Stadium, with doors opening at 5. Admission is $40, with pre-registration available at gomocs.com; UTC students, faculty and staff receive a $15 discount. All proceeds will benefit the Huesman's Huddle program, which provides free admission to home games for underprivileged fans. All who attend the clinic will receive a visor, and the first 50 to register will receive free admission to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' SHE Expo on Saturday. The clinic includes instruction from the coaching staff, both on the field and in the Finley Stadium Club, and door prizes and other awards will be given throughout the evening. In addition, clinic participants and others are invited to submit their best recipes at gomocs.com for the Chattanooga Football Tailgating Recipe Book.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.
Preseason All-Southern Conference Football Team
Offensive Player of the Year: Jacob Huesman, Sr., QB, UTC
Defensive Players of the Year: Michael Pierce, Sr., DL, Samford
QB Jacob Huesman, Sr., UTC
RB Alex Lakes, So., Mercer
RB Denzel Williams, Jr., Samford
OL Sam Frye, Sr., The Citadel
OL Joe Turner, Sr., Furman
OL Gunnar Bromelow, Sr., Samford
OL Corey Levin, Jr., UTC
OL Anton Wahrby, Jr., Wofford
TE Duncan Fletcher, Jr., Furman
WR Karel Hamilton, Jr., Samford
WR Spearman Robinson, Jr., Western Carolina
DL Mitchell Jeter, Sr., The Citadel
DL Michael Pierce, Sr., Samford
DL Josh Freeman, Sr., UTC
DL Keionta Davis, Jr., UTC
LB Cory Magwood, Sr., Furman
LB Justin Cooper, Sr., Samford
LB Nakevion Leslie, Jr., UTC
DB James Bradberry, Sr., Samford
DB Dee Virgin, Jr., UTC
DB Lucas Webb, So., UTC
DB Trey Morgan, Jr., Western Carolina
PK Henrique Ribeiro, Jr., UTC
P Brian Sanders, Sr., Wofford
RS Chandler Curtis, So., Mercer
QB Troy Mitchell, Sr., Western Carolina
RB Darius Ramsey, Sr., Western Carolina
RB Lorenzo Long, Jr., Wofford
OL Alec Hulmes, Sr., Samford
OL Jacob Revis, So., UTC
OL Synjen Herren, Sr., UTC
OL Josh Wineberg, Sr., Western Carolina
OL T.J. Chamberlain, Sr., Wofford
TE Tony Philpot, Sr., Samford
WR Jordan Snellings, Sr., Furman
WR C.J. Board, Jr., UTC
DL John Mackey, Sr., Furman
DL Austin Barrett, So., Mercer
DL Helva Matungulu, Sr., Western Carolina
DL Caleb Hawkins, Sr., Western Carolina
(tie) DL E.J. Speller, Sr., Wofford
LB Tyler Ward, Jr., Mercer
LB Terrance Morris, So., Wofford
LB Drake Michaelson, Sr., Wofford
DB Alex Avant, Sr., Mercer
DB Jamerson Blount, Jr., Samford
DB Cedric Nettles, Jr., UTC
DB Sertonuse Harris, Sr., Western Carolina
PK Dillon Christopher, Jr., VMI
P Matt Shiel, So., Mercer
RS Will Gay, Sr., Wofford