Less than a month away from the third anniversary of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright being hired by his alma mater, the honeymoon phase is officially over.
Now the real fun begins.
The Mocs' 2021 season, which started with them nationally ranked and picked to win the Southern Conference, came to a close Saturday with a 24-21 home loss to The Citadel, which entered the game with a 3-7 record. When UTC opted out of the pandemic-delayed 2020 SoCon and Football Championship Subdivision seasons in the spring, it could have been for all the right reasons, but the end result of the fall was never expected to be a 6-5 record.
It was the culmination of a tumultuous year that began with the Mocs playing a spring schedule that not everybody was excited about. The Mocs went 3-1 against SoCon foes — having faced only half of the league — before opting out, a decision that not everybody was excited about. The last game was a 35-28 loss to Mercer on March 27 with 21 new starters in the lineup as veteran players rested, a decision Wright felt was best for the program in the long term.
A lot of people — donors and boosters included — felt blindsided by that strategy, with some professing they would never contribute to the program again (a problem when you're a cash-strapped FCS team). For UTC administration, it was reasonable to enter the fall expecting (and perhaps demanding) success greater than a winning record.
UTC's defense this fall will go down statistically as one of the program's best of all time. The Mocs allowed 17.1 points per game, the fewest in a single season since 1987 (16.4). They allowed 275.8 yards, the fewest since 1985. Save for the overtime loss at Virginia Military Institute, mistakes on that side of the ball were rare.
But then there's the offense, which seemed to have all the ingredients except for quite possibly the most important one: a reliable quarterback. Although it always felt to outside observers as if that would be a problem — and ultimately was — UTC coaches didn't seem overly concerned. Either they didn't think the quarterbacks were good enough and they tried to hide them, or they didn't allow the quarterbacks to be good enough. Neither situation is favorable.
Cole Copeland was 6-3 as the starter in the nine games between the opener and the finale. He was good at times and bad at others, but he was never asked to do too much. Drayton Arnold lost both of his starts, against Austin Peay and The Citadel, and though asked to do about the same as Copeland, he had less to show for it.
Even after a mistake-filled loss to Mercer pushed UTC out of the SoCon title hunt entering the final week of the regular season, the team was considered an at-large candidate for the FCS playoffs — provided it beat The Citadel — and returning to the postseason for the first time since 2016 might have allowed the Mocs to spin the season as growth.
At the same time they were taking on the Bulldogs, VMI lost to Western Carolina and Mercer lost to league champion East Tennessee State, which has lost just once this season — 21-16 to the Mocs on Oct. 16. And a UTC win was there for the taking against the Bulldogs as the Mocs led 21-14 at halftime with the running game dominating and Arnold playing decent football. But then things fell apart, and when the defense finally cracked, leading to a 57-yard run by Sam Llewellyn in the fourth that put The Citadel ahead for good, there was little to no confidence the Mocs would be able to rally.
Two Arnold interceptions later, that was confirmed.
"I thought the second half was the most lethargic half of football we played all year," Wright said Saturday. "That comes right back on me. No doubt about it, it comes right squarely on my shoulders, because they acted like we weren't ready to play. There was no purpose, there was no passion, there was no reason. We were just out there, and that's what's disappointing, because we hadn't been that way all year."
The problem is that there was a purpose, there was a reason. This is a program that qualified three consecutive seasons for the playoffs fairly recently (2014-16). This is a program that won three consecutive SoCon titles (2013-15). If there was a time to crack, it's not the second half of a game that could put your team in the playoffs.
So unfortunately for Wright, now 15-13 overall and 13-7 in the SoCon at UTC, he was correct: It does come right back on him. The NCAA transfer portal will giveth this offseason, no doubt, but it could also taketh away. If he and offensive coordinator Joe Pizzo aren't excited about the quarterback position, the Mocs better go find one (at least), preferably with experience.
The Mocs still return most of the defense, four quality running backs and multiple receivers. Two starters on the offensive line are expected to be back as well, but with players now allowed immediate eligibility after their first transfer, who knows what could happen?
It's why each season in college football matters, especially in the FCS and lower levels, where every team realistically stands a chance to win something of significance at the beginning of the year. UTC had a chance to take full advantage of one of the most talented groups in its history but couldn't capitalize.
And now the fun begins.