Updated with more information at 8:20 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2020.
A seemingly unbelievable situation started to become real for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior tight end Chris James on Wednesday.
Having been told of the possibility of the Mocs adding a second game to the fall portion of their 2020-21 schedule this Saturday at Nebraska, James and his teammates had approached the situation with a certain level of skepticism.
But then, after a team meeting, players walked out to see their equipment lined up along the hallway, ready to be put on a truck and sent to Lincoln on Thursday afternoon. Coach Rusty Wright's team, coming off a 13-10 loss last weekend at Western Kentucky, had been tested once for COVID-19 this week at that point — and would be tested again at 6:30 Thursday morning — with all results coming back negative.
"We saw that, and Coach Wright said there was a good possibility," James said Thursday afternoon. "We just had to get the OK from the Big Ten."
The Mocs were going to be tested again Friday before boarding charter flights to Nebraska, where they would have held a walk-through before playing Saturday.
That's where things fell apart, with the Big Ten nixing the idea of the Cornhuskers playing a nonconference game, citing a previous decision made by the league to play only conference games this fall. Nebraska was trying to fill an opening after Saturday's scheduled game against Wisconsin was canceled due to positive tests for the Badgers.
How did a UTC-Nebraska game even get that close to happening, though?
It started with a relationship between Nathan Barger — the head athletic trainer for UTC football — and a couple of Nebraska athletic trainers, who had communicated about the possibility.
"Nate told me about it, and I said, 'Seriously?'" Wright said. "And he said, 'Yeah, I think they're serious.' So I told him to call them back and let's see where this goes."
The request made its way to the UTC athletic department. Athletic director Mark Wharton went straight to UTC chancellor Steve Angle while also relaying the message to Wright to communicate with his players about the opportunity.
Once Wright got the approval of his players, Wharton received the blessing of Angle, which set things in motion. The two sides had agreed to contract terms — Nebraska was going to foot the bill for all COVID-19 testing, handle UTC's travel and pay in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $250,000 — and all that remained was Big Ten approval.
In the meantime, UTC coaches had resorted to watching YouTube videos of the Cornhuskers' season opener, a 45-17 loss last Saturday to Ohio State, which moved up from fifth to third in the rankings this week. It was the best the Mocs could do while waiting on game video from Nebraska.
The equipment managers had to get to work as well. The Mocs had played last Saturday's game at Western Kentucky with special helmets, with one side simply stating "Nooga" and the other the player's jersey number. That had to be switched out for the standard Power C logo on the sides of the helmets.
There was even talk about the possibility of UTC playing a second game against a Big Ten opponent the following weekend, with Purdue's Nov. 7 game against Wisconsin also facing the prospect of cancellation.
"We might try and figure out a way if they'll let us in the Big Ten South," Wright joked.
According to a report from Yahoo Sports, none of the other school presidents in the 14-team Big Ten were in favor of Nebraska's exemption from the stipulation barring nonconference games during the coronavirus-altered season. That's despite another rule that essentially requires a team to play six games to be eligible for the league title game this year.
"I felt like there was a great possibility that they would change the rules to be able to allow teams to play games, just to be able to get the six games in," said Wharton, who was associate athletic director at Big Ten member Penn State before being hired by UTC in 2017. "We were just holding out hope that there would be that opportunity."
UTC hasn't shut down the possibility of playing more football this fall, although the latest Wright would like to have a game is probably in the next week or two. Either way, the Mocs have a Southern Conference schedule to look forward to in the spring 2021 semester
While the SoCon released the schedule last week, adjustments will be required due to the NCAA announcement's Thursday that The Citadel — which had been ruled ineligible for the league crown due to playing four nonconference games this fall — had received a waiver that will allow the Bulldogs to play eight league games in the spring. The SoCon season was expected to kick off Feb. 20, with the last regular-season game on April 17 and the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to follow, but in a time when adjustment has become the routine, there will be more adjusting down the road.
When the UTC athletic department needed to band together on the fly, though, it did just that — even if the road trip didn't pan out.
"We were very, very excited about playing," a dejected James said. "After not much football, any game — especially against a big school like Nebraska — is exciting. We were biting at the chops."