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ETSU Making A Major Reintroduction

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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After eleven total wins in three years, Randy Sanders' Buccaneers, sooner than many expected, have rallied to right the ship.

There is a new direction to East Tennessee State; forward. The Buccaneers, under first-year head coach Randy Sanders, are 5-1, 3-0 in Southern Conference play, are nationally-ranked and tied atop the league standings. Two weeks ago, ETSU defeated Chattanooga, a potentially game-changing triumph that has the not-long-ago-dormant program now poised for a run. The last time the Buccaneers won their first three SoCon games, they tied a school record with ten total wins and advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. 

Saturday's convincing victory over Gardner-Webb came with even more momentum. East Tennessee State, winning 45-0, recorded the program's first shutout in 15 years. Correspondingly, the Buccaneers extended their winning streak to four games for the first time since 1999, their most-recent debut in the polls. For a place that didn't have football as recently as 2014, ETSU's Homecoming win over the Running Bulldogs came in front of a sellout crowd. 

After eleven total wins in three years, Sanders' Buccaneers, sooner than many expected, have rallied to right the ship. Their flag is now waving on the national stage. East Tennessee State, at this point, has to be considered a favorite to make the FCS Playoffs. The last time the Buccaneers won a league championship was in the Ohio Valley Conference in 1969; they have never won a SoCon title. Such history could be on the horizon.   

The magic, for the Buccaneers, has often come in the final minutes of games as East Tennessee State, prior to the victory over Gardner-Webb, recently won consecutive conference contests against VMI, Furman and Chattanooga by a combined total of eight points. Each of those outings resulted in the Buccaneers ultimately making the defining plays down the stretch. After losing three games by a seven points or less last year, ETSU has been one of the nation's most clutch teams.

In Lexington, the Buccaneers followed a go-ahead fourth quarter touchdown run from Quay Holmes by forcing the Keydets to a punt, two interceptions and a turnover-on-downs. East Tennessee State, for an encore, promptly had a comeback for the record books. Down 27-6 to Furman late in the third quarter, the Buccaneers rallied to tie on a late touchdown pass from Austin Herink to Matt Thompson, then took the lead on a game-winning safety from Dylan Weigel. With the pressure on, a final defensive stand preserved a critical win against Chattanooga.      

A finish to the regular season that includes an upcoming road trip to 4th ranked Wofford and a home finale with record-setting quarterback Devlin Hodges and Samford awaits as a challenge. That said, the second-half also stands a chance to add to a tradition that includes former NFL Pro Bowler Donnie Abraham and a win over Terry Bradshaw's Louisiana Tech in the 1969 Grantland Rice Bowl. East Tennessee State didn't have that opportunity just a few short years ago. Sanders and this team are poised to earn prominent media guide placing. 

The college football season has settled in and the Buccaneers are directly in the mix. They aren't just contemporary, they are contending.

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