If the Bucs manage to beat Samford on Saturday, they would clinch the outright Southern Conference championship for the first time ever and earn the league’s automatic bid to the Football Championship Series playoffs.
So much is at stake, yet Sanders refuses to address the enormity of the task.
“We’re not trying to approach this as a big game or anything else,” Sanders said Monday during his weekly news conference at Greene Stadium. “It’s Game 11. If you’re trying to win a championship, trying to win them all, every game is just as important as the last one or the next one. We’re just trying to get ready for Game 11 at this point.”
ETSU hosts Samford on Saturday. Kickoff at Greene Stadium is set for 1 p.m.
The Bucs (8-2, 6-1), coming off their bye week, held at 17th in the coaches’ FCS poll and 19th in the STATS rankings. Their six conference victories have been by a combined 16 points and none has been by more than three.
Yet here they are, on the verge of the school’s first FCS playoff berth in 22 years.
“We’re certainly hoping this isn’t our last game,” Sanders said. “It’s the last one that’s guaranteed to us. It’s Game 11 on the schedule so let’s go find a way to win Game 11.”
There are several storylines on Saturday in addition to the Bucs’ postseason quest.
Samford (5-5, 4-3) was picked to win the conference but has fallen out of contention. Still, the Bulldogs have plenty of reasons to want to play.
Quarterback Devlin Hodges needs 317 passing yards to break the FCS career record of 14,496 set by Steve McNair of Alcorn State from 1991-94. Hodges became the SoCon’s career leader in total yardage last week when Samford blew a 21-0 lead in a 42-27 loss to The Citadel.
The Bucs are expected to have the services of defensive end Nasir Player, who missed the last game against Mercer. Player is third on the team and ninth in the conference with five sacks, but his contribution goes much deeper than the numbers. The opposition routinely double- teams him, freeing up other defenders to make plays.
“Any time you get a player of his magnitude back in the defensive line, it’s huge,” Sanders said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, but especially when you’re playing a team that’s going to be dropping back and throwing it like they are. He is one guy who can rush off the edge and affect the quarterback without us having to blitz, so having him back should be a huge boost for us.”
ETSU’s bid for “ESPN College GameDay” to come to campus came up short when the show announced it would go to Orlando, Fla., where unbeaten Central Florida is taking on Cincinnati.
Sanders insists he’s having fun, even though he can’t show it during the season — not as long as there’s another game to coach.
“I’ve had a blast this year,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work. I think when it’s all over, I’ll sit back and look at it and remember a lot of things. I tell the guys every time we go on the field we’re making a memory, and we have made a lot of really good memories this year.
“I’m sure once it’s over I’ll get to appreciate them a whole lot more. The bad part about coaching is you don’t get to appreciate them too long while you’re in the process. If you sit around and appreciate one too long, it probably costs you the next week.”
ETSU is offering a free ticket to Saturday’s game for all military personnel and first responders. The first 50 in that group to come through the gate will receive a voucher for a free turkey from Food City.