Editor's note: This begins a five-day series. UTC beat writer Gene Henley will tackle different topics in countdown order prior to the Mocs' first football practice on Aug. 3.
There was a time when the thought of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga being in the conversation for a national football championship was considered ridiculous.
One would have to go back only as far as the 2008 season — which ended with a 1-11 record and the losses by an average of 31.2 points — for the vision of an NCAA final for the Mocs to seem nonsensical.
But alumnus Russ Huesman was hired as head coach, and the process began. That led to a share of the Southern Conference championship in 2013 and winning it outright last season with a 7-0 league mark. In their first postseason appearance since 1984, the Mocs advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals, where they suffered a four-point defeat to New Hampshire.
Do they have what it takes to make the next step and thrust themselves even further into the title discussion? If they do, it will be because of any number of factors.
Here are five of them.
1. Jacob Huesman. Heard of this guy? The 6-foot-2, 220-pound former Baylor School standout is on the watch list for every FCS national quarterback or overall offensive player award — most recently the CFPA national performer of the year — and is prepared to further his assault on the UTC record books this season. Keeping him healthy will be of the highest priority, which could mean that the record holder for career wins could be subjected to a bubble throughout game weeks.
2. Experience. Sure, the Mocs lost a number of key contributors from last season on both sides of the ball. There are others who have played a lot of college football ready to step in, though. Three of the top four rushers and five of the top seven receivers are back, to go along with an offensive line that will benefit from the return of preseason second-team All-SoCon pick Synjen Herren from injury and University of Georgia transfer Josh Cardiello. Defensively, the entire secondary is back, along with linebacker Nakevion Leslie and half of what was a dominant defensive line. In addition, Henrique Ribeiro returns a year wiser at the kicker position.
3. Depth. This falls right behind the experience. Because of the recruiting job the coaching staff has done, having quality bodies at the positions won't be a problem. The defensive line is missing three of its top five players from 2014, but Isaiah Mack and Taylor Reynolds will step in at the tackle spot vacated by Danny Ring while several players will vie to take over for current New Orleans Saint Davis Tull (watch out for Vantrell McMillan) at end. Offensively, Tommy Hudson is gone, but the receiving corps has no fewer than nine players capable of making plays if called upon. Running back Keon Williams is gone, but experienced Derrick Craine and Richardre Bagley will be joined by freshmen Kyle Nalls and Alex Trotter. Basically, players who could start for a lot of programs throughout the country will be battling to crack the two-deep rotation for UTC, and that will lead to better, more intense practices.
4. Favorable schedule. It's not going to be the easiest of schedules, but according to Massey Ratings, the Mocs have at least a 70 percent chance to beat every opponent not named Florida State. Playing fellow FCS top-10 member Jacksonville State in front of what should be a pumped-up Finley Stadium crowd in the season opener helps, and the Mocs get home games also against conference contenders Western Carolina and Furman. VMI and Mercer were both picked toward the bottom half of the SoCon, which leaves Samford and Wofford, who host the Mocs in September and late October. Winning those two games could put a stamp on the conference race.
5. Hungry for more. A season ago, the Mocs were determined after being snubbed for the 2013 FCS playoffs despite claiming a share of the conference title. They showed that in how they played in 2014, but losing in the playoffs was a pain that the program hadn't experienced in 30 years — and in a game UTC had chances to win. Such losses are hard to forget, and with the other aforementioned factors — namely Huesman and the experience — that defeat won't be forgotten. Defensive lineman Josh Freeman said recently that he couldn't wait to play "JSU" (Jacksonville State). Getting back on the field has been the only priority for the Mocs since the New Hampshire loss, and the ability and desire for the program to take yet another step (or two or three) is their focus.
Farragut High School's Cole Strange became the Mocs' first commitment for the 2016 signing class over the weekend. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder could play tight end, defensive end or offensive line in college. He racked up 100.5 tackles as a linebacker for the Admirals in 2014.
He chose UTC over offers from Morehead State, UT-Martin and Western Carolina.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.