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ETSU is Ready for More

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Debuting in the championship bracket for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, new-look ETSU has new aspirations.

Last season was a banner year for East Tennessee State football. In just their second season back after reinstating football following the program's cancellation in 2003, the Buccaneers made history, winning eight games and reaching the FCS playoffs for only the second time in school history. Now, slotted in the preseason polls, the reigning Southern Conference co-champions are ready to make a statement. 

What happened in 2018 really was remarkable. Picked to finish eighth by both the SoCon coaches and league media, the Buccaneers were, instead, one of the stories of the year in college football. ETSU started the season 6-1, a lone loss coming at Tennessee, and positioned itself for a pressure-packed rally to the finish against some of the biggest names in the conference. A program that, not long ago, didn't exist, was suddenly shaping the national narrative.

The Buccaneers, playing with confidence and cohesion under former Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida State offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, proved ready for a moment many had been waiting a generation for. Facing a daunting final five games, ETSU promptly went 3-2 down the home stretch, beating The Citadel, Western Carolina and Mercer and winning two of those games on the road. Notably, the Buccaneers won those three outings by eight total points, playing, in key moments, with the certainty of a proven contender.

Those efforts culminated with a late November appearance in the FCS playoffs, a showdown at traditional power Jacksonville State. ETSU was tied with the 8th-ranked Gamecocks in the fourth quarter before ultimately falling 34-27 in a very competitive opening round game. The Buccaneers, that afternoon, compiled 421 yards of total offense and had the football near midfield with the chance to either tie or potentially take the lead with less than two minutes remaining. 

Debuting in the championship bracket for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, new-look ETSU has new aspirations. Consider the table now set.

Ahead of this fall, the Buccaneers have talent and experience, momentum and expectations. ETSU, beyond just the headlines of returning to the gridiron, will enter kickoff on the big stage and in the spotlight. The Buccaneers were one of three teams to receive a first place vote in the SoCon Coaches' Poll. National voter and Southern Pigskin writer Robbie Ross pegged ETSU 24th nationally in his recently-released preseason rankings.   

These Buccaneers will have considerable star power leading the way, namely running back Quay Holmes on offense and end Nasir Player and safety Tyree Robinson on defense. Holmes compiled nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards a year ago, leading the SoCon with 13 rushing touchdowns and 15 total scores. Selected as the SoCon's preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Player recorded six sacks, eleven tackles for loss and three forced fumbles for the league's second-ranked defense. Southern Pigskin editor Jim Johnson named Robinson, a SoCon-best six interceptions and 15 passes defended in 2018, the number one overall player in the league. 

Looking at the schedule awaiting, the showcases are many. So, too, are the opportunities. ETSU will open at former SoCon powerhouse Appalachian State and close with in-state SEC foe Vanderbilt. In between, eight league tilts will help determine the Buccaneers' postseason fate. Notably, ETSU will play at Furman and Wofford in consecutive games a month into the season. The Terriers' trip to Johnson City on October 5th is poised to be one of the games of the year in the SoCon.

When VMI comes to town to begin SoCon play on September 14th, ETSU will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its famed 1969 team. Those Buccaneers, who began that season against Appalachian State by the way, went undefeated, won the Ohio Valley Conference and topped Terry Bradshaw and Louisiana Tech in the Grantland Rice Bowl. 

There is great excitement around ETSU football, past, present and future. Foundation in place, the Buccaneers are ready for more.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports