Football is ready to kickoff at Mercer on Sept. 1, as the Bears embark on a quest for their first Southern Conference (SoCon) title.
For the first time since the program was restarted in 2013, the Bears will have their first true senior class. A big group of key guys who helped build the program will look to close out their final season in style.
The team has gone from an upstart who set the Pioneer League on fire with a 10 win season — the most from any first year team in college football history — to a team looking to compete with the big boys in the SoCon.
We have watched this team grow before our eyes. This season might finally be the year that all the hard work pays off. The Bears are poised to make a run at a title that a set of guys — without scholarships at the time — signed on for. The only question left unanswered: Are you ready for some Mercer football?
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Quarterback situation
John Russ has started every game for the Mercer Bears since the team was re-launched in 2013.
Last spring, the program landed possibly its biggest transfer recruit since the program’s restart in former Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary.
The Bears also landed quarterback Kaelan Riley from Calhoun High School where coach Bobby Lamb’s brother Hal is the head coach.
Lamb said that Russ was working with the other two guys all summer and catching them up on the Bears offense.
Russ will be the starter heading into the season, but fans should be prepared to see McCrary take the field early on and get some in-game reps. Lamb says that Russ “is driving our train right now” and should be for the foreseeable future, barring injury.
Russ outperformed all expectations during his tenure at Quarterback. From the program's record 10-2 start to a win over Chattanooga, a top three team in all of FCS football, Russ has been the leader of this team.
Lamb is showing loyalty to his quarterback and some may say to a fault. Russ may not be as naturally talented as the two guys behind him, but he makes up for in heart.
Fans should enjoy every snap he takes this season as his time winds down here at Mercer. Russ is the true definition of what it means to be a Mercer Bear. We have been very lucky to have him and should be grateful for his efforts in building this program.
2. Close Games
The Bears have seen their share of tough losses over the last two seasons since joining the SoCon. If the team is able to win those close games this season they should be in position to compete for a conference title.
The Bears seemed to turn the corner towards the end of the season with big wins over Chattanooga and Furman, sealed with Zach Jackson’s interceptions.
Coach Lamb says that the guys have been working on the fourth quarter all through camp and are looking to finish more games this season.
“We have been in those situations. It's a learning experience and now hopefully we get over that hump.” he said.
3. Playmakers staying healthy
Alex Lakes, Chandler Curtis, Kyle Trammell, Stephen Houzah, Lemarkus Bailey and a slew of others went down with injuries that forced them to miss multiple games.
This lead to two things: key contributors missed games and clutch moments, but young guys were given valuable playing time. This will be good for Lamb and the Bears to have guys with significant playing time being able to step up in case of injury while also getting back those key pieces.
The ability to have actual playing time is huge as the guys have been exposed to real game situations, Lamb said. He says that this is the healthiest the team has ever been but understands that in football injuries can happen at anytime.
The Bears need to stay healthier this year to make a run at a SoCon title.
[pullquote speaker="Head coach Bobby Lamb" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]“We have been in those [close game] situations. It's a learning experience and now hopefully we get over that hump.[/pullquote]
Sept. 1: The Citadel (7 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 34-28
The Bears fell just short on the road to the Bulldogs last year. The Citadel runs a triple option offense and which will test the defense early on. Last season, the Bulldogs had 367 rushing yards against the Bears. For Mercer to win they can’t let the dogs out of the backfield for big runs.
Sept. 10: at Georgia Tech (3 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer loses 56-13
I am not going to sugar coat this — Mercer has a very slim chance to grab a win in this game. The stars would need to align perfectly to get a win over the Yellow Jackets.
The main goal for this game is try and keep all the guys healthy. The one positive here is that they face a similar offense week one against the Citadel.
Sept. 17: Tennessee Tech (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 27-24
Mercer outperformed Tennessee Tech in every facet of the game when these two teams squared off last season. At the end of the game though, the Bears were left with another close loss.
They just have to find a way to finish the drill this time. If they have the same stat line again this year, there is no reason why they shouldn’t walk away with a win.
Oct. 1: at VMI (1:30 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 41-24
Al Cobb of VMI is arguably the best starting quarterback in the SoCon. The Bears were able to force him to throw multiple interceptions last season, but untimely turnovers by the Bears negated that as Cobb was able to lead the Keydets to a 28-21 win.
Mercer’s secondary was missing multiple pieces including Zach Jackson who went out after a big hit in the game. Jackson had an interception in the 2014 game against VMI on the road to seal Mercer’s first SoCon win. Let’s see if history will repeat itself this year.
Oct. 8: at Chattanooga (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer loses 31-17
The most shocking upset in the SoCon last season was when the Bears sealed their victory against Chattanooga with an interception by Zach Jackson. The Bears played a near perfect game for 60 minutes. Perfect games are hard to come by. This year they have to go on the road which gives the Mocs the edge for me.
This is still a hard game for me to pick as my heart says that the Bears can pull off another miracle, but my mind says that they can’t do it on the road. One key aspect of this game is that the former FCS All-American Quarterback from Chattanooga, Jacob Huesman, is now a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL. The Bears should be thankful to not have to deal with him anymore.[poll id="26" align="right" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]
Oct. 15: Western Carolina (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 38-31
The Bears lost on a last minute touchdown against the Catamounts in the last meeting. The Bears once again outperformed the opposing team on the stat line, but were unable to cap the game with a victory.
Russ and company will need to get on the same page as they failed to score a passing touchdown last season against the Catamounts. This is where Chandler Curtis and Jimmie Robinson come into play. The pair will need to be good to break down the Catamounts defense with explosive plays.
Oct. 22: at Austin Peay (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 42-14
Alex Lakes ran over the Governors to the tune of 159 yards on 23 carries while former backup running back, Tee Mitchell, also went over the century mark. Expect the Bears to do more of the same this year as they look to make it three in a row against Austin Peay. Austin Peay has not won a game since Oct. 18, 2014.
The Governors will need to win before Oct. 22 to end that streak because it won’t happen against Mercer. The Governors also faced new Mercer quarterback, Johnny McCrary, while he was a member of the Vanderbilt Commodores. He put up 368 yards, two touchdowns and went 28-33 on pass completions.
Oct. 29: at Wofford (1:30 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 35-32
This was easily the most heartbreaking game of last season for the Bears as they lost in overtime after a missed extra point. They were able to hang with Wofford all night and made all the right plays to put themselves in position to win.
They won’t let it slip away this time. I think the game will come down to a field goal again.
Nov. 5: East Tennessee State (3 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 56-3
The Buccaneers are a brand new football team going through growing pains. Bears should win in a walk as they won 52-0 in the inaugural meeting between the two sides. Expect to see Kaelan Riley or Johnny McCrary in this game by the half.
The Bears arrgh not losing this game — which is pirate speak for this one will be a blowout.
Nov. 12: at Samford (3:30 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer loses 42-35
Macon native Chris Hatcher has turned the Samford football program in the right direction, or at least they showed flashes of promise last season. I expect them to be one of the top three teams in the conference this season.
After getting blown out last season by Samford, I expect the Bears to keep it closer. Samford just has way too many weapons. Their receiving corps is on another level from any other team in the SoCon.
Nov. 19: Furman (3 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 24-14
Bobby Lamb’s old team will return to Five Star Stadium after knocking off the Bears in Mercer’s first ever SoCon game two years ago that came down to the wire. Last season, Zach Jackson had a game-winning interception to close out the Paladins.
Fans should buckle in for a hard nosed brand of football as the defenses may showcase their talents in this game. This game will have the feeling of an intense rivalry, which means all bets are off as anything can happen in a rivalry game.
'Bax Trax': Are you ready for some football?