For a traditional power house team, more often than not, the first game of the year is a tune-up of sorts. The outings are usually scheduled against substandard football programs that don’t pose much of a threat, nor are fiery enough to inflict any serious damage on starters who need to be at 100 percent for the rest of the season. It’s an accepted tradition amongst the more recognizable programs, and one that has become a staple of Week 1 football (note: there are a few token exceptions).
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs are one of the substandard teams that will take on a college football giant during Week 1, when they face off -- on the road, mind you -- against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. What often gets lost in the translation with these games, however, is that the afterthought squads like Chattanooga frequently have pretty interesting histories as well, even if nobody wants to talk about them on a national level for 99.9 percent of the year.
Chattanooga -- for those who are unfamiliar with their work -- was home to one of the most notorious NFL players of the last decade. A charismatic force on and off-the-field who since his time there, has become a football legend, reality TV icon and, best of all, has left fans with some of the most iconic driveway workout images they’ll ever witness.
Yes, the one, the only, Terrell Owens was a member of the program’s football, basketball and track teams. While playing with the Mocs, Owens opted to wear the #80 in honor of his hero Jerry Rice, even if his game didn’t immediately resemble the Hall of Fame wide receiver’s.
Eventually it improved, though, and by his junior year Owens caught 43 passes for 667 yards and three touchdowns. The numbers from his junior year -- though still strong -- had actually noticeably declined from those of his sophomore year because opposing defenses began to dedicate so much coverage to him. Owens was so dominant, in fact, that up until 2007, he held the school’s single-season record for receptions until it was ultimately broken by Alonzo Nix.
And that’s what these little games between one college football titan and one lesser known school do, they shine a bit of much-needed limelight on the latter. Chattanooga’s head coach, Russ Huesman said this much while speaking with the press recently.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning, I’ve been on the phone all week,” Huesman said at the Mocs’ media day on Tuesday. “It’s pretty neat. I don’t know how many radio stations they’ve got out there, but they must have about fifty because I’ve been on about fifty already. They take their football serious out there.
“It’s going to be a great environment for us to go play. Another sellout crowd for them will be a pretty unique situation for our guys.”
A program with a rich football history tends to appreciate other schools’ history, and that’s precisely what’s happening in Nebraska this week. Since the 1970s, the Huskers have put together the winningest campaign of any collegiate program in America. They have accumulated 403 victories and have scored in 190 consecutive games. They have won five national championships in that time span (’70, ’71, ’94, ’95, and ’97).
Nebraska fans, for their part, have contributed to a record 311 sellouts in a row – a mark that eventually forced the school to expand the stadium that they have called home since 1923. The sellout record stems all the way back to 1962, a mesmerizing fact any way you want to cut it.
On September 3, two teams with nothing to prove to each other will meet in the middle of the field for no other reason than to open up the year in meaningful fashion. Barring a catastrophic showing, Chattanooga has zero shot of beating Nebraska, and they know that. Similarly, the Huskers realize that the Mocs are just a blip on the radar for them, a stepping stone to much tougher competition down the road.
But that doesn’t mean these games are pointless. This showdown will no doubt be one of the highlights of Chattanooga’s year because it thrusts them and their school’s lore into the national spotlight, and for Nebraska, it’s just another chance to square off against interesting, different opponents that they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered during a given trek towards a national championship.
History has always been a vital part of the collegiate game and, ultimately, history is one of the things that makes Week 1 match-ups like Nebraska vs. Chattanooga ten times more interesting than they otherwise would have been.