With a chance at a Southern Conference championship within its grasp just six months ago, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga chose to walk away from the Football Championship Subdivision's protracted 2020-21 schedule — which resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic — and focus on the next season.
That choice immediately put a spotlight on every game of the Mocs' 2021 fall season. Every decision is going to be questioned — fair or foul — because the spring team had ascended to a No. 9 national ranking prior to opting out, and there will always be speculation about what the Mocs could have done.
Games like Thursday's 30-20 season-opening loss to Austin Peay at Finley Stadium, a matchup of two teams in the FCS national rankings, won't do anything to stop the questions.
The Mocs were largely inept on offense, and as they stalled on that side of the ball throughout the game, their defense was left to make play after play after play. UTC mostly succeeded in that regard, but that also made any and every failure that much more glaring, because with an offense that finished with just 228 yards and committed two turnovers, there's no margin for error.
It's just the season opener, although it was a high-profile meeting for the Mocs' level of football. Austin Peay is 20th in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 and ranked 25th by FCS coaches, with the Mocs 18th in both polls listed by the NCAA.
The Mocs still have nonconference games at North Alabama and Kentucky before SoCon play begins, but they had a chance to get a statement win to show they were for real and fell short.
On to the next one.
More analysis from a bad night for the Mocs at Finley:
Senior safety Brandon Dowdell had six tackles and intercepted two passes, giving him eight for his UTC career. His second came with the Mocs down just 23-20 in the fourth quarter, but the offense was unable to do anything to capitalize on it.
The Mocs' rushing attack — the staple of their offense — was held to just 11 yards in the second half on 15 carries. With that element shut down, the team had to rely on its passing attack, and senior Drayton Arnold struggled throwing the ball, with two interceptions and just 130 yards through the air.
The Mocs had all the momentum after Dowdell's second interception with 13:23 to play. But they ran the ball twice and threw an incomplete pass before punting the ball back to the Governors 98 seconds later. Austin Peay went 86 yards on 11 plays, scoring to put the game away.
It was a game that started off with a ton of promise, with a crowd of 8,115 full of fans eager for a reason to buy in to this UTC team early in the season. The Mocs could live up to that, and although all of their goals are still in front of them, there are more questions looming. The quarterback position will have to be addressed in some capacity, or teams will sell out to stop UTC's rushing attack — much like Austin Peay did — and dare the Mocs to beat them through the air. This year, the team's success will depend on how that gets addressed.