Weighing the Mocs playoff chances as spring season kickoff nears

Gene Henley, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·4 min read

Feb. 23—Saturday at noon, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team embarks on an unprecedented spring football season, consisting of at least seven games against Southern Conference competition. Sixteen teams will qualify for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, which will begin on Apr. 24.

Do the Mocs have what it takes to be one of them?

Today, we examine three reasons why the Mocs could compete for the SoCon championship and/or an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs, and three reasons why they still might be a year away:

REASONS THE MOCS WILL MAKE IT

Defense: If there was one major takeaway from the Mocs' 13-10 loss at Football Bowl Subdivision Western Kentucky, it was that UTC's defense was legit. The 13 points at the time was the fewest the Hilltoppers had scored to that point in the season, and the 254 yards of total offense was WKU's third-fewest total all year. With the belief that the FBS program has better athletes than most any FCS program UTC will face, there's reason to believe that the Mocs will be relying on defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward's group to do most of the heavy lifting.

Talented running game: Fresh off a torn ACL late last season, Ailym Ford had 92 yards rushing in the WKU game and was by far the most productive back on the roster. Even if the Moc coaching staff decides to limit the 2019 SoCon Freshman of the Year's workload this spring, they'll be fine because of the amount of depth behind him, with senior and 2018 All-SoCon selection Tyrell Price — whose 2019 torn ACL opened up the door for Ford — as well as WKU transfer Gino Appleberry capable of producing out of the backfield.

Front-loaded schedule: UTC will get its toughest competition right out of the gate, with Saturday's game at home against Wofford and a Mar. 20 date at Furman, with a game next weekend at the always-tough Citadel on Mar. 6. In the SoCon preseason polls, the Mocs along with the Terriers, Paladins and Bulldogs made up the top four teams in the league, with Samford — who comes to Chattanooga on Apr. 10 — coming in fifth. If the Mocs can get through the front part of their schedule healthy, the back end, with trips to Western Carolina and East Tennessee State and a home date against Mercer, looks much easier to navigate.

REASONS THE MOCS WON'T MAKE IT

Quarterback question: Althought teams don't need a quarterback to throw for over 300 yards every game, they do need the starter at that position to be able to make quality throws at the right time. It's possible Drayton Arnold, or Cole Copeland, or Ty Gossett will be the answer, but regardless, the Mocs enter the season with a starter at QB that has one start in five years (Arnold), one who hasn't played in a game since 2017 (Copeland) and one who is a true freshman (Gossett). When the rest of the roster has been built to win now, quarterback is not the position you want to have questions at. While Arnold didn't play as bad against WKU as the stats suggest (9-for-23, 90 yards, sacked twice), there was a point where he was needed to engineer a game-winning drive and he couldn't. Rust (his last start was as a high school senior) likely played a factor, but that rust will create some doubt until he — or one of the backups — changes the narrative.

Lack of playmakers at receiver: Quarterbacks need receivers to make plays for them, and the Mocs' best playmaker entering the 2020 season, senior and two-time first-team All-SoCon selection Bryce Nunnelly, is sitting this season out, moving onto Western Michigan after graduation. Left behind is a number of quality players, but UTC was so struck with the injury bug that no receiver really was able to step into a No. 2 role, which was ultimately occupied by tight end Chris James, a converted quarterback. The Mocs keep bringing in receivers, but is there one capable of becoming a full-time playmaker? Maybe Reginald Henderson, who averaged 18.1 yards per catch in 2019, is ready. But it's a fair question for now.

Motivation: This is likely the biggest question. The goal of every game is to win, no doubt, but usually, the goal of spring is to develop talent ready to compete in the fall. The Mocs have a golden opportunity to do both — win games and develop depth — although the first point could be negated by the second if the coaching staff chooses to give younger players game reps to have them ready for the fall season. You don't really know who's staying and who is going after the spring, and it may be important to get some of those guys ready. A lingering question is whether a SoCon championship and/or a playoff spot is that important when the real 2021 season is still over six months away.

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