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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel yells at an official during Saturday's home loss to Georgia.

Uggggghhhhh!

Just in case any football fan of the University of Tennessee or the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga needed a reminder, Saturday proved once again that November is often the cruelest month.

UT, of course, should never have been expected to beat No. 1 Georgia, though the Volunteers did lead the Bulldogs 10-7 in the first quarter. That the Vols ultimately lost 41-17 is much more a statement to the Dawgs' greatness than the Big Orange's weakness.

But while the Peach State's ultimate program had to travel north to Neyland Stadium to wrap up a perfect 8-0 Southeastern Conference campaign in advance of the SEC title game on Dec. 4, the Volunteer State's Football Championship Series program in the Scenic City — the UTC Mocs — had to visit Macon, Georgia, to play Southern Conference brother Mercer.

That the Mocs lost 10-6 to the Bears after turning it over five times and missing two field-goal attempts and a PAT probably ended any hope to reach the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016 — and surely disappointed a fan base that expected big things from a squad that returned 72 of 76 letter winners.

With a 5-2 conference mark heading into next weekend's regular-season finale at Finley Stadium against The Citadel and a 6-4 overall record, it would likely be the upset of all upsets for UTC to earn one of the 14 at-large berths in the 24-team field.

Two quotes from Mocs coach Rusty Wright after this one to frame the frustration that both the program and its fans must feel right now.

No. 1: "You can't turn it over five times against anyone. You just can't do it. We were going up and down the field and had nothing to show for it. You do good things, and then you turn it over. You just can't do that and win."

No. 2: "You give up 10 points in a college football game, you have to find a way to win it."

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UTC Athletics photo by Logan Stapleton / UTC quarterback Cole Copeland stands in the pocket as he looks for a receiver during Saturday's SoCon showdown with Mercer in Macon, Ga.

It is the saddest truth of this largly unsatisfying UTC season, for the Mocs fielded a defense for most of the year — at least after the opening loss to Austin Peay — that was capable of competing for, if not winning, a national championship.

But the offense has rarely carried its share of the load. And never was that more obvious than Saturday, when the Mocs had 285 yards of total offense to 163 for the Bears, yet lost on the scoreboard because of those turnovers and missed kicks.

If UTC has any slender hope of reaching the postseason, it must blow out The Citadel, never an easy task, then hope the FCS playoff committee is impressed by its 28-23 loss to a Kentucky team that was ranked much of the season, yet scored fewer points against the Mocs than it has against at least four SEC foes this season.

Would that be enough? Probably not, but it may be the only result, albeit a loss, that the Mocs can use to argue for an at-large berth.

As for Tennessee, well, the Vols not only scored the most points that Georgia has allowed in a single game all season, they piled up 387 yards of offense against a defense most regard as the nation's best.

Moreover, reserve quarterback Joe Milton's late effort after replacing starter Hendon Hooker should make the Big Orange Nation feel better about next season if Hooker declines to return to Rocky Top next fall.

All Milton did was hit six of 10 passes for 88 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions against a defense that was still playing a number of starters. If this is the real Milton rather than the one who routinely overthrew his receivers by 10 yards early in the season, Josh Heupel's amazing offense might not miss a beat in Year Two.

This doesn't mean the Vols are necessarily ready to unseat the Dawgs in next year's SEC East. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is stockpiling talent in Alabama-esque fashion, which means the Vols will still have some catching up to do in that department for the next year or so.

"Nobody thinks they've arrived," Smart said. "There's things we can continue to work to get better at, and they'll continue to do that."

However, Georgia has arrived at the end of its SEC schedule with a perfect league mark and is 10-0 overall, and as good as Bama looks in the SEC West at the moment, it's hard to see the Crimson Tide knocking off the Dawgs in the SEC title game next month inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

In fact, to review scores from across the country, to see schools such as previously undefeated Oklahoma exposed as a pretender rather than a contender, is to wonder if Georgia's only serious threat to winning it all is Ohio State, which shredded Purdue 59-31 on Saturday in a game that really wasn't that close.

But to watch Heupel's offense on Saturday against one of the best defenses the SEC has seen in years is also to rightly wonder how long it will be before the Vols seriously threaten to reach the league title tilt for the first time since 2007.

"We'll be in more of these games and be on the right side of them as we grow," Heupel said.

They no doubt will. And when they do, let us hope we will have seen the last of the all-black unis, at least unless they wear black helmets with them. Saturday's black jerseys and pants with white helmets is a look that needs to retire soon.

But as UTC painfully reminded its fan base against Mercer, being in big games and finishing on the right side of them is an entirely different thing, which too often leads to three haunting words at season's end: Maybe next year.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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