Sanders hopes this week's bye is 'two-thirds of the way through our season'

Joe Avento • Updated Nov 8, 2018 at 7:36 PM

With a potential berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in its grasp, East Tennessee State is taking advantage of a late-season bye week with an eye on what the future may hold.

The Bucs are off this weekend, giving them a chance to catch their collective breath after a surprising 8-2 run to start the season. An open date coming in Week 11 didn’t seem like it would be much help when the schedule came out, but the way the team figures, it might be perfect.

With a 6-1 Southern Conference record and at least a share of the league championship under its belt, ETSU is thinking about the playoffs.

“I told them in a team meeting, everybody’s talking about the open date at the end of the season,” first-year ETSU head coach Randy Sanders said. “But if we do what we should, we still could possibly have six games left. This open date could come about two-thirds of the way through our season. You never know. That’s our goal, to make this open date be about two-thirds of the way through our season. Then it would be the perfect time.

“We’ve played 10 weeks. Hopefully, we’re going to play six more. That’s our goal.”

With the regular-season finale against Samford set for Nov. 17 at Greene Stadium, the Bucs still have plenty to play for. No matter what happens around the league this Saturday, a victory over Samford the following week would give ETSU the outright SoCon championship and the league’s automatic bid to the playoffs.

A loss, on the other hand, would leave the Bucs’ postseason hopes up to a selection committee, and even at 8-3, they might not get in.

Should ETSU lose and Wofford, Samford and Furman win out, it would create a four-way tie for the championship at 6-2. Samford would get the automatic bid by virtue of beating the other three. If the NCAA takes just two SoCon teams, Wofford could lay claim to the at-large bid thanks to its win over ETSU.

However, if Furman is part of that tie, the Paladins could cry foul because they beat Wofford. But ETSU defeated Furman, which would force the NCAA to make a tough decision.

Should the NCAA decide the SoCon was strong enough this season to warrant three teams in the 24-team field, ETSU would expect to be in no matter what.

The Bucs could clinch the outright title without even playing this weekend, but they would need a lot of help. Here’s what it would take: The Citadel beating Samford, Western Carolina beating Wofford and VMI beating Furman. If all three of those outcomes don’t happen, the Bucs are playing for the title against Samford.

“It’s all in our hands,” Sanders said. “We have to go find a way to win Game 11. If we do that, we’ll be all right. Right now, our focus is how good can we be in Game 11 and what do we have to to win this football game.”

When Sanders signed his contract in December, it contained several incentives, and the way his team has played, he’ll be cashing in on a lot of them.

Sanders will get $7,500 for every conference victory over .500, $20,000 for a SoCon regular-season championship, $5,000 for a berth in the playoffs and $7,500 for each playoff win.

In addition, he’ll get $5,000 if he’s the SoCon coach of the year, an award for which he appears to be a lock after coaching a team that was picked to finish eighth to the conference championship.

The Bucs practiced this week, and the coaches gave the players Friday and Saturday off. With no classes being held Friday, it’s a rare two-day break. They’ll resume practice on Sunday in preparation for the Samford game, which could prove to be one of the biggest games in school history. ETSU has been making its case trying to get ESPN’s College GameDay to come to campus for the regular-season finale.

“I’m sure we’ll keep an eye on what’s going on around the rest of the conference this weekend, but it’s really just a good chance to get away and refresh and recharge after playing 10 games,” quarterback Austin Herink said. “Then we’ll get ready for this last game and the potential postseason.”

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