Ahead of The Citadel football team lies the promised land — a long-awaited open date, followed by SoCon showdowns against title contenders Chattanooga and No. 20 Wofford to finish out the regular season.
But to get there with their goals intact, the Bulldogs must negotiate what looms as a trap game Saturday against an opponent that it's tempting to overlook in 2-6 East Tennessee State.
ETSU is 0-5 in the Southern Conference this season, but Citadel fans should remember: The Buccaneers shared the SoCon title just last season, beat the Bulldogs, 26-23, at Johnson Hagood Stadium in 2018, and have lost four league games by an average of just 6.75 points this season.
Citadel coach Brent Thompson's "1-0 each week" mantra will be tested when the Bulldogs (5-4, 3-2) and Bucs kickoff at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in a regionally televised game (WCBD-TV) in Johnson City, Tenn.
"ETSU is a lot better off than their record shows," Thompson said this week. "They've got 14 starters back from last year's team, and are really good on defense ... If you watch them week in and week out, they are playing very tight games.
"The ball just hasn't gone their way this year the way it did last year."
ETSU was 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the SoCon last year in former Florida State offensive coordinator Randy Sanders' first season, good enough to share the league title with Furman and Wofford. The Bucs won five league games by a total of 14 points.
But this season, the close games have not gone ETSU's way. The Bucs have averaged just 14.25 points during their current four-game losing streak, including one-score losses to SoCon contenders Furman, Chattanooga and Samford.
Freshman quarterback Trey Mitchell has hit 57.6 percent of his passes for 1,332 yards with eight touchdowns against five interceptions. Sophomore running back Quay Holmes averages 74 yards per game and 5.2 yards per rush.
The Bucs are dead-last in the league on third down, converting just 33.7 percent of the time. But the ETSU defense has been good enough to keep the team in almost every game, allowing just 23.6 points and 357.9 yards per game, among the top three in the SoCon in both categories.
"It's a fine line, and we're close," Sanders told reporters this week. "I told the team, and hopefully they've listened, to keep believing. You can't stop believing, because it's just right there."
ETSU defensive end Nasir Player, the preseason SoCon defensive player of the year, was penalized for targeting in last week's 24-17 loss to Samford and will be suspended for the first half against The Citadel.
The Bulldogs have won three straight and at 3-2 in the SoCon trail league leaders Wofford (4-1) and Furman (4-1) by just a game. Furman is at Chattanooga (3-1) in a key game Saturday. Of the teams above them in the standings, the Bulldogs already have beaten Furman and still have Chattanooga and Wofford left on the schedule.
"ETSU is a very dangerous team," Thompson said. "I look at them and I'm puzzled every single week. They are just not finishing the games, but they are very, very close."