The buzz surrounding the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team prior to Tuesday's weekly media luncheon at McKenzie Arena was all about what could be.
As in, a win by the Mocs at Virginia Military Institute on Saturday coupled with a win the same day by The Citadel over Wofford would give the Mocs a share of the Southern Conference championship with Furman and Wofford. Though UTC cannot earn the league's automatic postseason berth (that belongs to Wofford, which has wins over the Mocs and the Paladins), there is a case for the Mocs to be considered for one of the 14 at-large bids in the Football Championship Subdivision's 24-team bracket.
When asked the inevitable "What if?" question, UTC coach Rusty Wright wanted no part of it.
"I will deal with that Sunday when we are done," he said. "I hadn't even thought about that. I got on them a bit today because we didn't practice as well as we needed to do. I told them, 'I'm not talking about it, you're not talking about it, because all that matters to us is Wednesday.'
"We're going to finish this thing the right way, and whatever happens in Lexington happens. All that stuff doesn't matter. It will take care of itself if we take care of today."
The Mocs (6-5, 5-2) and the Keydets (4-7, 3-4) will meet for the 26th time when they face off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Foster Stadium. UTC leads the all-time series 17-7-1 and is 8-4 at VMI.
One topic Wright wanted to discuss was the ruling by the NCAA last Saturday that will allow tight end Chris James to return for another season of eligibility.
"It's huge, not because he's a good player, but he's also a good young man," Wright said of the converted quarterback. "Another year for Chris at that spot will do him wonders. It will make him that much of a better player, and he loves to play the game. He told me, 'Coach, I'm going to play until somebody tells me I have to stop.' Those are the kind of guys you want to be around."
James will also be a part of what should be a strong returning nucleus of senior starters in 2020.
"When you have those older guys who come back like Cole Strange, Bryce Nunnelly, Brandon Dowdell, Jordan Jones and those guys, it's big because now they know what is going to be acceptable and can build on that."
Another one of those returning seniors is running back Tyrell Price, who was lost for the season in the opener against Eastern Illinois. Price had not previously redshirted, so returning in 2020 is his choice.
"He's coming back," Wright said of the Mocs' leading rusher in 2018. "It's the best thing that could happen for that young man because now we can get him graduated."
The news is important for the Mocs because freshman Ailym Ford is scheduled to have surgery to treat a leg injury and could miss the start of next season.
"We'll have to wait and see after the surgery, but the earliest he could be back is some time in the summer and we want to be careful with him," Wright said of the 1,000-yard rusher. "If he had to be held out of the first half of the season, I could see getting him in four games and still having a redshirt year for him."
Wright and his staff are also busy on the recruiting trail. The first commitment for the 2020 class is Reuben Lowery III, a defensive back for Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, who pledged to the Mocs in late August.
Lowery III (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) also had offers from Austin Peay, Kennesaw State, Jacksonville University and Stetson among others. He was a three-year starter for the Hawks and also stood out in track as his speed — he has been clocked at 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash — made him a star sprinter. One of Lowery's recruiting profiles lists him with a 250-pound bench press and a 480-pound squat.
He earned recognition in a win over South Forsyth by blocking a field-goal attempt (he returned the ball 43 yards for a touchdown), blocking an extra-point try and forcing a fumble.