There is no perfect time for David to face Goliath in college football

UT Martin Athletics photo / UT Martin football coach Jason Simpson has guided the Skyhawks to consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships but will open this season Saturday at two-time defending national champion Georgia.

Jason Simpson and Rusty Wright are former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant coaches who now oversee programs at the Football Championship Subdivision level.

Programs with gargantuan challenges in the 2023 season.

Simpson's UT Martin Skyhawks will open play Saturday night against two-time defending national champion Georgia inside Sanford Stadium, while Wright's UTC Mocs will close their regular season on Nov. 18 against Alabama inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. You know, the Alabama that has earned six national titles under Nick Saban.

These games can present the opportunity of a lifetime for FCS players, and FCS schools can make between $500,000 and $600,000 for often serving as sacrificial lambs, but when is the best time of the season to endure such a towering task?

"If you made me choose, I would say early," Simpson said Tuesday on a Zoom call. "That's just because you can kind of get back focused on your conference play instead of moving forward and having that looming down there at the end of your schedule. Sometimes it can affect your momentum if you're in the playoff hunt or a conference championship run, so if you made me pick, I would say early.

"The challenge is certainly the same either way it goes."

Simpson has plenty of experience on the subject as he enters his 18th season with a 107-84 record and with two consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships. Last season's Skyhawks posted a 7-4 mark that included a loss at Boise State in the third game and a loss at Tennessee in the seventh contest.

UT Martin received a $550,000 check from losing 65-24 at Tennessee last October and is gettintg $500,000 for making the journey to Athens later this week. Wright's Mocs, meanwhile, are receiving $600,000 to challenge the Crimson Tide.

"When you play those games, it's really not the week after that gets you but about two weeks after that gets you," Wright said. "It takes so much for your kids to stay in it and the speed of the game and those kinds of things.

"It really catches up with you physically about two weeks after you play that game."

UTC is 13-9 over the past two seasons, just missing out on the FCS playoffs each time. Should the Mocs come up just short again, the Alabama trip would serve as a memorable finale, but a UTC team advancing to the playoffs would head to Tuscaloosa knowing that — as strange as it sounds — more important games await.

What is Wright's preference?

"We're going to find out," he said with a laugh. "We're playing Alabama the last game this year, and we've got Tennessee to open up next year."

For now, it's UT Martin facing the objective of not letting Georgia control more than just one Saturday.

"Our kids have done a pretty good job of bouncing back and moving on to the next week," Simpson said. "We've only won one of these, and it was against Memphis in 2012, but you just go and compete. The scoreboard is unforgiving. It doesn't say, 'This is a two-time national championship team, and this is an OVC team.'

"There is no forgiveness in the scoreboard, but there is so much opportunity to grow, and there are so many opportunities throughout a game for your team to get better. In my experiences, those opportunities can help you the next week and three weeks from now."

Georgia will represent the ninth different Southeastern Conference program that UT Martin has played since 2008, with the Skyhawks previously having faced Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri and Tennessee. UT Martin faced Mississippi State in 2014, when coach Dan Mullen and quarterback Dak Prescott had the Bulldogs ranked No. 1, so this will be the second No. 1 team the the Skyhawks have faced.

A father first

Simpson is the father of Alabama redshirt freshman quarterback Ty Simpson, who has been vying in recent weeks and months to replace top NFL draftee Bryce Young as the Crimson Tide strarter.

In other words, there have been two college camps to monitor.

"I've kept up every day," Simpson said. "I'm a dad first, and that would be whether it's my daughter playing high school basketball or my youngest son playing eighth-grade football. I'm a dad first, so I'm there to support them and be a sounding board for them, whether as a cheerleader or just encouraging them.

"Some days it was multiple times a day, and some days it was a late, five-minute conversation before his curfew. It's very difficult, but we find a way to make it work."

Smart optimistic

Georgia's biggest question entering Saturday's opener is at running back, where Daijun Edwards has been dealing with an MCL injury and Kendall Milton a strained hamstring. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart provided an upbeat update on the two seniors Tuesday night following practice.

"They've both done more," Smart said in a news conference. "Daijun stayed in a black (noncontact jersey), and Kendall has been out of a black. They both look good, but we're giving a lot of reps to a lot of other guys, because we've got other guys we've got to prepare.

"They've both done drills and have worked during the run periods and pass periods, so I feel good about both of them."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].