With a picture finally forming of what spring competition will be like for the Football Championship Subdivision, a second-semester season is likely ahead for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the 2020-21 school year.
Last week, the NCAA Division I Council approved both a framework for spring competition in the sport as well as an altered FCS postseason, with the playoffs set for April 18 to May 15 and reduced by eight teams to 16. That postseason model was then approved Tuesday by the Division I Board of Directors.
With that framework allowing up to eight regular-season games in a 13-week period before the playoffs, FCS leagues, including the nine-team Southern Conference to which UTC belongs, are likely to begin competition in early February. The SoCon announced in mid-August that it would postpone conference competition in fall sports, including football, until the spring semester due to concerns about COVID-19.
The other FCS leagues also postponed their fall schedules — though some teams, including UTC, are taking part in one or more nonconference football games this semester — but with the situation regarding spring football more clear, the Times Free Press is looking at the likely 2020-21 schedule for coach Rusty Wright's Mocs.
Barring changes, here are the nine opponents they are expected to face:
Western Kentucky (Away): This is the Mocs' lone opponent scheduled for the fall (Oct. 24 in Bowling Green). The Hilltoppers went 9-4 in 2019 but are off to an 0-2 start this year, with a 14-point loss to Louisville followed by a 30-24 loss at home against Liberty this past Saturday.
The Citadel (Away): The Bulldogs are one of the four SoCon teams competing this fall, having already lost 27-6 to Football Bowl Subdivision member South Florida and 49-0 to top-ranked Clemson. The Citadel is playing four games this fall, with a trip to Army and a home game against Eastern Kentucky remaining, and is expected to be one of the favorites for the SoCon title.
East Tennessee State University (Away): After sharing the league crown in 2018, the Buccaneers took a step back last year, with injuries playing a factor in a 3-9 showing in former University of Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders' second season as head coach in Johnson City. ETSU is not playing this fall.
Furman (Away): Clay Hendrix has built a quality program in Greenville, South Carolina, having won eight games in two of his three seasons as head coach. The Paladins returned 14 full-time starters (eight offensive, six defensive) from an 8-5 team, as well as 13 other players who had at least one start, but the Paladins aren't playing until the spring.
Mercer (Home): The Bears are playing a three-game fall schedule, with trips to Jacksonville State and Army before a home game against Abilene Christian on Halloween. They're coming off a 4-8 season and will enter the year with a new coach: Drew Cronic, who was 47-6 at Division II program Lenoir-Rhyne, replaces Bobby Lamb, who had led the program since it resumed competition in 2013. However, the Bears return former McCallie standout Robert Riddle at quarterback after he threw for 1,453 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven games last year as a sophomore.
Samford (Home): The Bulldogs were one of the first teams to opt out of a fall season and focus on the spring. A 5-7 record last year was a step back for a program that had won at least six games in each of the first four seasons under head coach Chris Hatcher, which included a pair of playoff appearances. UTC has won six straight in the series since an overtime loss in 2013 cost the Mocs a spot in the postseason.
Virginia Military Institute (Home): The Keydets went from one win in 2018 to five last year, their best season since a six-win showing in 2003, when they were part of the Big South. They return seven starters on offense, led by All-SoCon quarterback Reece Udinski, who threw for 3,276 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. They won't compete this fall.
Western Carolina (Away): The Catamounts return nine starters from last season, but they must replace a four-year starter at quarterback: Tyrie Adams, who finished his college career with 11,525 total yards and 82 total touchdowns. Will Jones has played in 14 games behind center in his two seasons and is the likely replacement. The Catamounts travel to Liberty on Nov. 14 and Eastern Kentucky a week later.
Wofford (Home): The Terriers lost nine offensive starters from last season's 8-4 team that lost once in league play, including quarterback Joe Newman, voted the SoCon's top offensive player last season, and offensive lineman Blake Jeresaty, recipient of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy awarded to the best offensive lineman in the league. With seven starters back on defense, that group will likely lead the way.
The Mocs have finalized their 2021 fall football schedule with a home game against Austin Peay. Although the date is not yet known, it's likely it will be on a Thursday night at Finley Stadium.
The Mocs haven't played the Governors since the 2014 season, when they went to Clarksville and won 42-6. A game that was supposed to be played in Chattanooga a year later was canceled.
In addition to its SoCon schedule next fall, UTC has games at North Alabama on Sept. 11 and at Kentucky on Sept. 18, the latter with a $500,000 payday attached to it.