GREENVILLE, S.C. — Even if the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga misses the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs this season, which appears likely, reflecting on the year will show a winning record for the Mocs and at least a three-win improvement from 2017.
It will also show how close they were to being even better.
The Mocs (6-3, 4-3 Southern Conference) lost 16-10 at Furman this past Saturday, and their only remaining scheduled games are senior day against Mercer (4-5, 3-3) this Saturday at Finley Stadium and a Nov. 17 trip to South Carolina. The hill to climb to a possible at-large playoff berth, while not insurmountable, is steep.
"The big thing is, I can't go into the locker room and say I'm not proud of those guys," UTC coach Tom Arth said after Saturday's loss. "The way they fought, they way they believed, what they showed out there, to be able to get stops and get the ball on the ground and give us a chance was really special. We had an opportunity at the end of the game to recover an onside kick, go downfield and score to win, and we just didn't do it."
Saturday's game followed a path familiar to UTC this season. The defense was able to get stops consistently, but the offense, though not devoid of good moments, was unable to capitalize on the opportunities. The Mocs had nine offensive series against the Paladins. Six moved into Furman territory and five ended there, but only twice did the Mocs put points on the board.
The Paladins' offense did a good job of staying on schedule, putting itself in manageable third-down situations. In the second half, Furman converted on fourth down three times in a 20-play, 64-yard drive that lasted more than 10 minutes.
UTC is the only SoCon team that has not allowed 30 points in a game this season, which makes the Mocs' three losses by a combined 20 points hurt that much more. They controlled the second half of their game at East Tennessee State on Sept. 29, but digging a 17-point hole cost them in the three-point loss. They trailed 14-10 heading into the fourth quarter against Wofford the following week, but UTC's offense couldn't take advantage of a defensive takeaway and the Terriers scored soon after on the way to a 21-10 win.
The Mocs have averaged 30.7 points in their wins. They have a combined 34 points in their losses.
"We had opportunities early we've got to take advantage of," quarterback Nick Tiano said of Saturday's game. "We couldn't get out of our own way. We'd be driving and take a penalty. We had a play to make and we couldn't make it. We weren't clicking early, and then it was too little, too late.
"From start to finish, we've got to come out faster. We've got to score more than 10 points. We have too much talent (not to)."
For UTC players, Saturday's loss hurt because of the likely ramifications, but they will try to move on, and some of them have special insight into what it takes to defy expectations.
Three of the Mocs' starters against Furman — tight ends Gage Upshaw and Jacob Webster and inside linebacker Marshall Cooper — were walk-ons when they arrived at UTC, as were six others who played against the Paladins. Of the 30 listed transfers on UTC's roster this year, 16 came as walk-ons.
Their message? We've been doubted before. This is no different.
"A lot of us were talking in the locker room, and we were reminded that you never know what could happen. You can't ever quit," said Cooper, who had 11 tackles at Furman. "It's like anything in life. We took the hard way to get where we're at, so we don't quit easily. We just know we've got to let this one go. We can't be upset about the past. We have to come in, work through the week just so we know we did our job next week (against Mercer), then we go into South Carolina and prepare for them.
"You know it's never an end until it's finally an end, so we're going to keep working and we're going to figure it out."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.