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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC running back Ailym Ford catches a pass during practice early this month. Ford is part of a deep group of running backs and one reason the Mocs should be optimistic about their chances for SoCon and national success this season.

EXPECTATIONS

When everyone returns from a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team that performed well (albeit in limited action in the truncated 2020-21 season), expectations should be high. They should be higher when one considers that two players who have received All-Southern Conference recognition during their careers — running back Ailym Ford, the 2019 SoCon freshman of the year, and tight end Chris James — didn't even play during the four league games this past spring. The Mocs are deep and talented all over the field, which is cause for a ton of optimism on campus.

CONCERNS

The saying is that "if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one." Well, the Mocs actually have three receiving serious consideration to be the starter, which may or may not be better. But one of the three — senior Drayton Arnold and juniors Cole Copeland and Robert Riddle — will be asked to take over the controls of the offense. Riddle, who transferred from Mercer, is the most accomplished despite an injury-plagued career, but the McCallie graduate is also new at UTC and slightly behind the other two, who both played in the spring and had quality moments.

WHAT'S NEW

Riddle is the most likely newcomer to get on the field, but there are no guarantees. Second would be offensive lineman Blake Mitchell, an Austin Peay transfer who was an All-Ohio Valley Conference selection in 2019. The Mocs have an extremely talented freshman class, with players such as wide receiver and Bradley Central product Javon Burke, uber-talented running back Reggie Davis and defensive back Josh Battle trying to work their way into the mix. With NCAA rules allowing them to play four games and still redshirt, it's likely they'll play some, but probably not an awful lot.

OUTLOOK

The Mocs are about to be tested right out of the gate with a battle against Austin Peay at Finley Stadium, the only game in the Football Championship Subdivision's opening week featuring two ranked teams (UTC is 18th in both FCS polls listed by the NCAA; the Governors are ranked 25th by coaches and No. 20 in the Stats Perform Top 25). Aside from a Sept. 18 visit to Southeastern Conference member Kentucky, Austin Peay could be the most talented team UTC faces this year, but a nonconference game at North Alabama as well as road trips to Virginia Military Institute — which won the SoCon title in the spring — Samford and Wofford also loom. The highlight of the home slate is rival East Tennessee State, which comes to Chattanooga on Oct. 16.

KEYS TO SUCCESS

The Mocs have no fewer than four good options at running back and plenty of quality receivers. They have an offensive line with everyone back and a defense that features one of the better groups in the country. The key to this season, though, is a quarterback emerging as the guy and taking over one of the more talented teams in the country, and it's going to be quite the three-game gauntlet to start the season. It's still possible that the Mocs could rotate quarterbacks — Tennessee did a decent job of that in 2019 — but it's not ideal. Playoffs and championships are what this team is competing for, and if the pieces all come together, that's more of a likelihood instead of a possibility.

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