In a normal school year, members of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team would have just returned to campus to begin the spring term, with a little time to rest up after a fall semester full of football games and a renewed focus on the winter workouts coming up.
But as everyone knows, 2020 wasn't a normal year. And these aren't normal times. So when the Mocs returned over the weekend, they did so in anticipation of two weeks of winter workouts that will lead up to official practices — not those of the "spring" variety — starting in early February. It's all in preparation for a spring semester season in the Football Championship Subdivision, with the Southern Conference playing an eight-game schedule.
The Mocs — who played one game in 2020, a 13-10 loss at Football Bowl Subdivision member Western Kentucky on Oct. 24 — will kick off their league slate with a home game against Virginia Military Institute on Feb. 20. The FCS playoffs will run from mid-April to mid-May, with the field limited to 16 teams (11 league champions and five at-large selections) instead of 24 for this edition.
So with practice upcoming, the Times Free Press offers five potential storylines for the spring:
1. The Mocs won't play all four of their scheduled home games at Finley Stadium: Ah, the UTC-Finley issue again. The Times Free Press reported in 2018 that the school was looking to build a new facility around Engel Stadium and break away from the place it has called home since 1997, and we stand by that. (There are currently more pressing concerns, such as breaking ground on the new athletic complex, which we've been told is expected to happen in March). More immediately, there are concerns that Finley won't be ready to host the Mocs' first two home games, with Wofford coming to Chattanooga a week after VMI. It's a complicated situation, because UTC didn't request to play in the spring and and Finley didn't expect to need to have its facilities ready at that time. But here we are with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to alter routines, and with the possibility of having 25% capacity at games, the Mocs may need a place to play to start the schedule. So the question is, does UTC choose to play football at Finley without fans, meaning no revenue? Or does UTC choose to find an alternate site for those games in an attempt to bring in some money and risk the image hit of playing at a high school venue, such as McCallie's Spears Stadium or Baylor's Heywood Stadium? I question how good of a look it would be if the hometown team isn't playing home games at the facility once built for it.
2. The Mocs will not actually play eight regular-season games: One of the concerns for college coaches when it comes to competing this spring is that players who were signed in February 2020 have yet to go through a true offseason training program. That's what the winter is for: getting bigger and stronger to help ease the transition from high school to college. Recruiting for an FCS program is about finding diamonds in the rough and developing them, and it's going to be hard to develop anyone when the primary focus is going to be game prep. It's possible that the Mocs could work out the financial particulars that would allow them to play a reduced schedule and put their focus on the fall. Another consideration is the NFL draft that's set for April 29-May 1. The Mocs have a couple of fringe prospects who need pro days to try to boost their stock. How will they be affected?
3. The fall season is the top priority at UTC: I would venture to guess that in a perfect world, UTC coach Rusty Wright would love to have a spring season in which — if the Mocs do play eight games — his team goes 6-2 and falls short of the playoffs. That way, the Mocs can call this experiment successful while ending the season on April 17, which would have been the date of their spring game. In that scenario, players are able to go home after the semester under normal circumstances and rest their bodies before returning this summer, because there's still a fall semester season to be played, likely starting with a home date against Austin Peay either the last Thursday in August or the first Thursday in September.
4. A newcomer will contribute immediately: Now, finally on the football field. When last seen, the Mocs were nearly knocking off Western Kentucky, losing only after a late touchdown by the Hilltoppers. The Mocs played pretty well on both sides of the ball that day, but it's not a surprise Wright and his staff used the early signing period in December to add FBS transfers at receiver and defensive back with immediate eligibility. Neither position group played bad in the fall game, but it probably doesn't hurt to have more quality depth, both for games and for the effect of creating competition in practice to raise everyone's level of play. Tyler Smith, a receiver who transferred from Western Kentucky, could be a player to watch. The same could be said for defensive back Telly Plummer, a Louisville transfer. Those two, along with punter Jason Pierce, are the three immediately eligible signees. It wouldn't be a surprise if Smith found his way into the rotation.
5. The Mocs will use three quarterbacks: When I rewatched the Western Kentucky game, I thought Drayton Arnold did some nice things, especially considering he hadn't started a game since 2015 — when he was still in high school. The best way to make him effective this spring is to count on the running game and let Arnold throw when necessary, with the Mocs as a whole leaning on the defense. That recipe nearly worked against the Hilltoppers, and it will work against most FCS teams. Look for the Mocs to add another quarterback this summer, most likely via transfer; that makes the spring an audition for Arnold, junior Cole Copeland and freshman Ty Gossett as the 2020-21 school year doesn't count against eligibility. Arnold will probably take the majority of the snaps for UTC this spring, but it wouldn't hurt to get the other guys a few reps here and there.