The 10th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers begin opener for both squads.
Bo Pelini's Cornhuskers are looking to build on a 2010 campaign in which they captured the Big 12's North Division crown in their last year in the conference. Although the season ended with losses to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Title game and Washington in a bowl game, Nebraska still won 10 games for the second straight season.
Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman has posted back-to-back 65 records in his first two seasons at the helm of his alma mater. UTC went 5-3 in the Southern Conference in 2010, its most league wins since 1985. The team opens the new season ranked 21st in the FCS top-25 rankings.
This game marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.
The Mocs had a great deal of success moving the football on the FCS level last season, averaging 430.0 yards per game, resulting in a healthy 31.5 ppg. The return of all-conference selections B.J. Coleman and Joel Bradford on the offensive side of the ball. Coleman, a 2011 Payton Award nominee, had a strong 2010 under center, connecting on 56.3 percent of his throws, for nearly 3,000 yards, with 26 TDs and 13 INTs.
Bradford was responsible for a good portion of that production, hauling in 81 balls, for a school-record 1,284 yards and eight TDs. He is a preseason All- American and is poised for another banner season. Just what the Mocs have to complement their all-star wideout remains to be seen.
"Joel had a great year last year and we expect him to have another great one this year. They will be looking for him a little bit more this year. When that happens, another guy will have to step up."
The ground attack will be headlined by J.J. Jackson, who started four games a year ago, scoring three times on limited carries. He will have to be good with a rebuilt offensive line that features a pair of freshmen and a sophomore among the starting five.
The defense in 2010 was a step or two behind the offense for Chattanooga, as the team yielded a generous 31.2 ppg and 370.0 yards of total offense and ranked 80th in the FCS in total defense and 95th in scoring defense.
The unit returns eight starters on that side of the football, led by Second- Team All-SoCon selection Ryan Consiglio at linebacker. The 6-1, 220-pound senior led the Mocs in tackles last season (110), with 9.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, one INT and two fumble recoveries. Junior rush end Joshua Williams (6-2, 235) will highlight the play up front after posting 8.5 TFLs and five sacks in 2010. Sophomore CB Kadeem Wise was the 2010 SoCon Freshman of the Year after posting 29 tackles and six INTs in his debut season with the Mocs.
Dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez was a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award last year as a freshman after throwing for 1,631 yards and 10 touchdowns, in addition to logging another 952 yards and 12 scores on the ground. Only two freshman quarterbacks in FBS history have rushed and thrown for 1,000 yards in a season. Despite the huge season, Martinez was inconsistent down the stretch and also missed time due to injury.
Now a sophomore, Martinez is ready to take on a much more defined role as a leader, according to Pelini.
"We feel really good about where Taylor is. He's had a great off-season. He had a tremendous spring. He's had a phenomenal summer. I think he's more engaged as a leader. I think he's really taken it upon himself to grow in that area. I think he's becoming a tremendous leader on our football team, holding his teammates accountable, holding himself accountable. I think he's poised to have a great year."
Martinez will have some help in the backfield, as junior running back Rex Burkhead is hoping to build on his numbers (951 rushing yards, seven TDs) from a year ago, when he split time with All-Big 12 back Roy Helu, Jr. Freshman running back Aaron Green, the Huskers' top-ranked member of the 2011 recruiting class, could also earn some playing time. Ditto for freshman wideout Jamal Turner, another highly-regarded recruit. Leading receiver Brandon Kinnie (44 rec, 494 yds, five TDs) is back in the fold for his senior season, but the team's first foray into the Big Ten could hinge on the play an offensive line that returns only two starters.
The Cornhuskers were one of the nation's premier defensive teams in 2010 and with seven starters returning to a unit that ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense (17.4 ppg) and 11th in yards allowed (306.8 ypg), it won't be easy for Big Ten or non-conference foes to move the football against NU. Linebacker Lavonte David is the headliner after leading the Big 12 and setting a school record with 152 tackles a year ago. David, a popular preseason Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, plays an aggressive downhill style and finished the year with 15 tackles for loss. Also returning at linebacker are juniors Will Compton and Sean Fisher, both of whom have extensive starting experience but missed most or all of last season with injuries.
Jared Crick is the crown jewel up front. A two-time First Team All-Conference selection, Crick will anchor the defensive line after registering 70 tackles, including 17 for loss a year ago. His 9.5 sacks ranked second in the Big 12, matching his output in 2009 (9.5 sacks). He'll be flanked by junior tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who notched 46 tackles (4.0 TFL) last year as a first-time starter.
The front seven is stacked, but the same cannot be said of the secondary, with the departures of All-American Prince Amukamara and All-Big 12 performer Eric Hagg. The lone returnee is senior corner Alfonzo Dennard, another all- conference pick who should assume more of a leadership role. He amassed 15 pass breakups and four interceptions last season.