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Mocs hope season opener is start of something special

Codrington's punt return seals win for NC Central

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Sep. 2—Football games like Thursday night’s season opener against visiting Austin Peay are why offensive lineman Cole Strange came to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The 7:30 p.m. matchup at Finley Stadium will pair nationally ranked Football Championship Subdivision programs — Austin Peay is 20th in the Stats Perform Top 25 and ranked 20th by coaches, with the Mocs 18th in both FCS polls listed by the NCAA — and offer the chance to take another step up in status.

UTC had a four-year run of 36 wins from 2013-16, and getting back to that level was a major part of current head coach Rusty Wright’s pitch when he interviewed to return to his alma mater as the program’s leader after the 2018 season. Wright coached linebackers on head coach Russ Huesman’s staff during that four-year run, which featured three Southern Conference championships and three playoff appearances, so Wright knew what good looked like for the Mocs.

“My vision was that we had an opportunity to have a place that could be special at this level,” he said. “I think it’s important here, but I think we have an opportunity because of where we’re at in the league we’re in to have a good football program over a length of time.

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“My pitch was to find a way to build that from the ground up for sustainability, not instant stability, and that’s my long-term vision for this place. It’s not two or three pretty good years and then a drop-off for two years and then we’ve got to keep building this thing back up.”

And that’s why games like Thursday’s opener are more than just a big game against an in-state opponent, with the Governors making the trip from Clarksville. It’s a chance to make a season-opening statement against a nationally ranked opponent, something the Mocs struggled to do in the past decade even during their run of success:

— Against UT-Martin in 2013, the 24th-ranked Mocs struggled in a 31-21 loss to the Skyhawks in front of 11,163 at Finley.

— Two seasons later, the No. 8 Mocs — with their highest preseason ranking in program history to that point — lost 23-20 to No. 7 Jacksonville State, with 15,812 this time at UTC’s home stadium.

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— In 2017, the 12th-ranked Mocs lost 27-13 to those same Gamecocks — this time ranked fifth — in the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Alabama, which was televised nationally by ESPN. It was also the first game as UTC head coach for Tom Arth, who left to take over at Akron after two seasons and was replaced by Wright.

Sure, the 2013 and 2015 UTC teams rebounded with eight and nine wins, respectively. The 2013 Mocs earned a share of the SoCon championship, while the 2015 team also won the league title and advanced to the playoffs. But with the buildup to the high-profile game six years ago, the team fell flat.

Since then, the program has fallen on rougher times, with Arth departing after totaling just nine wins in two seasons and Wright sporting a 9-8 record through his first two seasons — with this past season drastically affected by the coronavirus outbreak — while trying to pick up the pieces of what had been established.

Still, the Mocs — as well as the Governors — showed enough potential in the preseason to make their opener the type of game that moves the needle. Theirs is the only game between nationally ranked FCS teams in the opening week.

“It’s fulfilling, honestly,” said Strange, who is part of an experienced offensive line. “Whenever I came here, we were doing really well, and whenever I was here, I expected to do well the entire time I was here, and it really just hasn’t been that way.

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“As much as I’d like to say it’s been a great career, we’ve had average seasons at best and really poor seasons when I was younger, so to feel like we have the team moving in one direction — where we all want to be successful — it feels amazing, as good as it’s felt the entire time I’ve been here, and I love it.”

If Huesman, also a former UTC player, was hired as head coach in 2009 to, as he put it in his introductory news conference, “restore the glory” to Mocs football, then Wright’s goal was to “restore the glory that had previously been restored.” It’s a little wordy, but it makes sense to the Mocs faithful who experienced the high of that four-year run, only to be followed by the low of the following two seasons and the recent resurgence.

Winning the opener against Austin Peay won’t lead directly to an FCS championship; as a nonconference game, it won’t even help the Mocs get closer to a SoCon title. But with a little preseason buzz surrounding the program for the first time in years, it could lead to the start of something special, which is obviously what the Mocs are shooting for this year.

“I feel like a win would set the tone for the rest of the year to come, because all of us are expecting ourselves to do well,” Strange said. “I think a lot of us believe that we’re going to do well, so if we follow through with that Thursday, then it sets the tone and it kind of solidifies what we believe in our heart: that we’re going to take it to people this year.”

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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