With a 3-0 start to the spring season, Chattanooga was in prime position to compete for a Southern Conference football championship and an FCS playoff berth.
But last weekend, Mocs coach Rusty Wright decided to sit 21 of his starters in a game against Mercer. His team lost by 35-28, dealing a blow to its SoCon hopes.
And two days later on March 29, Chattanooga discontinued its spring season.
"The Southern Conference supports Chattanooga in its decision to discontinue its 2020-21 football season as it is left unable to field a sufficient number of players at several position groups to meet the conference’s COVID-19 guidelines," the league said in a statement. "The Mocs’ remaining scheduled games will be recorded as no-contests."
Wright was never a proponent of playing eight games this spring after the SoCon's fall season was wiped out due to COVID-19. Neither were The Citadel and athletic director Mike Capaccio, especially with the prospect of playing eight games in the spring and 11 more next fall.
All of which begs the question: Is it time for The Citadel to pull the plug on this spring season?
FCS teams Illinois State and Cal Poly already had opted out in midseason before Chattanooga did on Monday.
According to FCS national reporter Sam Herder, there are now 89 FCS teams playing in the spring, with Chattanooga the latest of 38 programs to opt out. The SoCon was the only league with all members playing this spring.
"I appreciate all of the hard work our guys put into this entire season," said Wright. "I know the timing is unfortunate, but like all programs across the country, we have been dealing with various COVID-related issues throughout this whole process. We are disappointed that we are not able to continue, but our student-athletes have done everything we have asked of them and I can't thank them enough for their efforts over the past year."
The Citadel is dealing with the same COVID-19 protocols and opt-outs that other teams must cope with. But the Bulldogs made things harder on themselves when 30 football players got involved in bookstore purchases with scholarship money that ran afoul of NCAA rules.
Twenty-six of those players must serve one-game suspensions, which essentially means three or four per game this spring. Seventeen of those players have served their suspensions heading into this week's game at Wofford, which missed a game earlier this season when it did not have enough players to meet SoCon guidelines.
The Bulldogs' season reached a low point with seven turnovers in last week's 55-7 loss to Samford, their worst home loss since 1999. The team has now lost a program-record 11 straight games, including three games against FBS squads in the fall.
Against Samford, The Citadel had 15 freshmen or redshirt freshmen in the 2-deep on offense and defense, and used just 39 players.
The freshman center and redshirt sophomore quarterback, both making their first college starts, turned the ball over twice on mishandled snaps. A freshman fullback lost a fumble, and the first-time starter at QB tossed a pitch straight to a Samford defender, resulting in a 68-yard fumble recovery for a TD.
During a normal spring, these are mistakes noticed only by the coaches. This spring, they are happening in front of thousands of fans at the stadium and on TV in games that count.
And they go on coach Brent Thompson's record, now 26-29 after a 10-2 start and SoCon title in 2016.
But Thompson said Monday it is worth it for The Citadel to continue playing games this spring.
"I've considered that probably after every single game, and going into the year," Thompson said. "And I still think it is worth it to play for a lot of reasons, and some of them may just be personal reasons.
"Some of them are, we're getting better, we're improving. We're playing a lot of our younger guys anyway, so let's give those guys an opportunity. We're playing some guys who are walk-ons, who are on partial scholarship and they are fighting their butts off. At this point, I think we're more playing for the fall, but I certainly do think it's worth it."
'Not what we're about'
Wright decided to sit his starters against Mercer after a starting offensive lineman suffered a season-ending injury to his leg. The Citadel likewise has suffered some consequential injuries, with QB Jaylan Adams (concussion), All-America linebacker Willie Eubanks III and starting fullback Clay Harris all missing games with injury.
Adams will be available this week, Harris played against Samford, and Eubanks will likely be a game-time decision at Wofford.
Thompson said young players develop faster in games than they would in a normal spring practice.
"You look at (fullback) Nathan Storch, he's getting better every single day," Thompson said. "He's had some really good days and some tough days in there ... The only way to do it is to go in there and get live reps."
Thompson doesn't seem likely to pull the plug. Remember, he's the coach who refused to shorten the second half of last year's game at No. 1 Clemson, despite trailing 49-0 at the half.
"We came here to play 60 minutes of football, and that's what we were going to do," Thompson said that day. "It didn't matter whether I was going to get beat by 100 or get beat by 50. We were going to stand in there and play a full 60 minutes of football.
"That's not what we're about, that's not what The Citadel is about, and I'm not going to cave in to that at all."
In the meantime, The Citadel can only hope that the words sung by Charleston native Darius Rucker are true:
"It won't be like this for long."