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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ UTC head coach Rusty Wright encourages the punt team as they take the field. The University of Tennessee Chattanooga Mocs visited the Jacksonville State Gamecocks in NCAA football action on September 7, 2019.

A native of South Carolina, Rusty Wright didn't grow up rooting for University of Tennessee football.

"I was a Georgia Bulldog fan," the first-year University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach said Tuesday, which was four days before his Mocs are scheduled to face the big brother Vols in Neyland Stadium.

"But whatever big school you play against or big stadium you play in, this is all about these kids having that experience. Playing in a place like Neyland Stadium against a program like Tennessee is a big deal."

When you're 0-2 for the season, as UT is, every game becomes a big deal. The idea that the Vols might look past the Mocs to next week's trip to Florida went out the window when Tennessee lost its opener to Georgia State, then its next game to Brigham Young.

"It's going to be a tough challenge for us," Wright said. "We're going to get their best shot."

If the Mocs indeed get that best shot, it's hard to see them winning, or even keeping it close. On what is expected to be very hot day for a game that kicks off at noon and will probably grow hotter every hour until it ends around 3:30, UTC will take the field with at least 22 fewer scholarship players than UT's 85.

To point out just one way that could affect the outcome, Wright noted, "We'll probably play our front five (offensive linemen) most of the game, and they'll rotate three noseguards in and out of there. There are some bad matchups out there."

One matchup in the Mocs' favor along that offensive line could be 6-foot-8, 325-pound sophomore McClendon Curtis, a former Central High School standout. Like Wright, Curtis grew up rooting for Georgia, at least partly because his uncle, Roy Lee Curtis, blocked for Herschel Walker.

"But I've got plenty of family members who root for Tennessee," he said. At least 10 of his relatives will attend the game thanks to the 10 tickets Curtis has secured. He estimates another five to 10 family members also will make their way to Knoxville.

"It's a great opportunity to play football in front of 100,000 fans," Curtis added. "You get a shot to show the world what you're made of."

Said sophomore linebacker Ty Boeck, a former Soddy-Daisy High School star: "Neyland Stadium is a big part of the culture around here. Almost everyone that lives around here is a Tennessee fan. I've gotten a lot of calls and text messages talking about the game and how they're looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a great atmosphere and going to be fun for the guys."

Though Wright never got to show what he was made of inside Georgia's Sanford Stadium when he was playing for the Mocs, he did get a Power Five conference moment when UTC visited Clemson in 1992.

"I actually had my first catch against Clemson," Wright said of that 54-3 road loss. "I can still remember running into Death Valley (the Clemson stadium)."

Unless you're a Tennessee Volunteers fan more than a little anxious to win one going away, all stress removed by the second quarter, you almost certainly hope that Saturday's final score is not 54-3. UTC may not have the horses to win this one, but it can still shock the oddsmakers who currently have the Big Orange favored by 28 points.

"I'm more worried about us than them," Wright said. "We're not going to practice any differently. I do have every version of 'Rocky Top' you can imagine, though. I've got banjo versions, guitar versions, all of them."

And because he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia State last season, he's also spent a little more time than usual talking to Panthers head coach Shawn Elliott this week.

"Elliott and I talk once a week anyway," Wright said. "The kicking game might be the biggest key. That's where the game can get away from you against a team like Tennessee. And you've got to have some luck. Tennessee had some open receivers against Georgia State and missed them. A guy fell down one time, got his feet tripped up. You can't be second-and-14 all day (on offense). You can't have them in third-and-short all the time when you're on defense."

When Georgia State shocked UT 38-30, Elliott was justifiably excited, saying he thought the Panthers were the better team on the field that day, that they outplayed the Vols on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

As Wright was wrapping up his news conference, someone asked him if he might be as jubilant as his former boss if the Mocs were to beat the Vols.

"I hope I (have a chance) to be that way," Wright said with a smile.

Stranger things have happened, as every Vols fan already has quite painfully experienced over the first two weeks of the season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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