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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC's Cole Strange (69), Zay Brown (33) and Jay Person (30) left the Rail high. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs hosted the East Tennessee State University Buccaneers in Southern Conference football at Chattanooga's Finely Stadium on October 17, 2019.

OK, so maybe those three Southern Conference football wins in three games that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs have amassed haven't come against the top of the SoCon.

In fact, two of those league victories — Western Carolina and East Tennessee State — have come at the expense of schools yet to win a conference contest.

Big deal. The only thing that matters is that three conference games along, the Mocs of first-year head coach Rusty Wright are the only team undefeated in a very balanced league heading into Saturday's game at Wofford.

Or as Wright noted during Tuesday's media luncheon, "We've won three games in a row three different ways."

What they haven't done, of course, is play one of the SoCon's traditional powers. That changes with Wofford. It gets no easier the following week when No. 14 Furman visits Finley Stadium. Or the week after that when the Mocs travel to Samford.

Lose more than one of those three and dreams of a conference championship are probably out the window. And even winning two of those three doesn't really guarantee anything with late-season league games still to come against The Citadel and at VMI.

"At this point, first place doesn't mean a whole lot," said senior quarterback Nick Tiano. "We're in a good spot, right where we want to be, but we've got a long way to go."

True. But look how far they've come. After a brutal early schedule that included road trips to Jacksonville State and Tennessee and a home game against powerful James Madison, UTC stood 1-3, its only win coming in its season opener against rebuilding Eastern Illinois.

"I know these guys could have folded the tents at 1-3," Wright said. "But they kept battling. Now we're playing with house money. We probably shouldn't even be here."

But here they are, all alone atop the SoCon, if only for one more week. But that's also the thing about momentum. And heart. And toughness. Those traits can sometimes carry you a long way. They can sometimes overcome a disparity in talent. Or experience.

For instance, there was Tiano throwing a key block late in last week's win over ETSU to spring Ailym Ford on a big run.

"(The opposition) feels like it's a cheap shot," a grinning Tiano said Tuesday. "They don't see it coming."

Some might say that's what got the Mocs to this point. After that 1-3 start, no one saw how good they could be.

For better or worse, senior defensive end Khayyan Edwards believes that element of surprise is now lost.

"Late Saturday, the scores coming out, it was pretty good (to be in first place)," Edwards said. "At the same time, there's a target on our backs now. People are trying to take you out."

It is different being the hunted rather than the hunter. Especially when you might not have the talent or experience to hold off the hunters.

Then again, Wright believes his team's early SoCon success has the Mocs in the hunt with some recruits that might not have considered UTC previously.

"Hopefully, it helps a lot," Wright said. "Hopefully, kids see how we're genuinely doing this, how we have good coaches who are good people who care about young people. So you try to pump this up as much as you can. And I do think we're probably in with some guys we weren't in on a month ago."

It makes sense. A lot of talented athletes want to get in on the start of something big, something that might have them be remembered for decades to come as the recruiting class that built a dynasty.

No one yet knows if a year from now we'll all be looking at the start of another marvelous run by the Mocs football program, one that strings together multiple Football Championship Subdivision playoff berths, maybe even a national championship, and have next year's freshman class say that this year's UTC team was the reason they signed on.

What we know today is that the last three games have been played at a noticeably higher level than the first four. What we know today is that three SoCon games along, the Mocs control their own destiny, a fact that seemed impossible to fathom a month ago.

So can they keep it up?

"We just have to take every day one by one," Edwards said. "Don't do anything crazy."

They've already done something crazy by winning their first three conference games. Now the trick is to be crazy good for the final five.

some text Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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