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Mercer is Expecting More

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Bears are confident that they possess the talent and experience necessary to make a run towards the FCS playoffs.

For the first time since the school elected to bring back football for the 2013 season, the Mercer Bears enter the year with high expectations for what they will be able to accomplish.

The Bears’ transition back into Division I college football was, understandably, a difficult one. After playing a schedule filled with predominantly non-scholarship FCS opponents in the program’s first season back on the gridiron, the Bears made the transition to the Southern Conference to experience life in their new permanent home.

Mercer’s first full season in the conference went as you would expect for a startup team still utilizing the services of a significant amount of inexperienced underclassmen. The Bears won just a single conference game in 2014, with that victory coming against VMI, the only other team that was also in its first season in the conference.

And for much of the 2015 season, it appeared that the Bears were on a similar, if not even slightly worse, trajectory. Mercer opened its conference slate last fall with four consecutive losses, including a defeat at the hands of VMI. In total, the Bears lost all four of those contests by a combined 13 points.

With its next game coming against the conference’s premier powerhouse, Chattanooga, is was certainly looking like Mercer would have to wait at least another week in order to try to scrounge up a league victory.

But with their backs up against the wall, the Bears played their finest game of the 2015 season, defeating No. 3 Chattanooga 17-14 in what would go down as the biggest upset in the SoCon last fall. It would also be the Mocs’ only conference loss on their way to another league title.

The upset win over one of the nation’s top teams propelled the Bears to a win the following week against Furman.

More importantly, though, it gave the players the confidence they needed in order to believe that they can compete with any team in the conference.

“Chattanooga came here to play, and certainly we played a tremendous football game and came out on the winning end,” head coach Bobby Lamb reflected of the Chattanooga victory on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. “The next day at practice our kids were giddy and fired up. Any time you are starting up a program you look for a signature win, and certainly that was our signature win. Hopefully that is going to pay dividends down the road as well.”

Lamb will undoubtedly have an opportunity to see how much tangible momentum was created by the end of last season very soon, as the Bears open up their 2016 slate against a conference foe in The Citadel.

The Bulldogs, who will travel to Five Star Stadium in Macon for a showdown on the opening Thursday night of college football, begin the year ranked No. 15 in the national polls.

Though it is impossible to tell how well his team will play when it lines up across the Bulldogs to open the campaign, Lamb certainly feels pleased with the way that his team has prepared for the start of another season and a tough opening opponent.

“We feel like we’re ahead of the game. We had a great preseason camp,” Lamb remarked. “Technically game week starts on Friday since we play next Thursday, but we’ve already told our players that game week is upon us even though we have nine days to go. Any time you play a conference game, we sell it to our kids as a championship game. To win the Southern Conference, you’ve got to be very consistent in championship games, and this will be a big one for us.”

The Bears realize that a tough challenge awaits them in their opening game of the fall, but they also realize the fortuitous break they caught by being able to play The Citadel to open up the regular season.

Rather than having a short week to attempt to prepare for the Bulldogs’ vaunted option attack, Mercer now has ample opportunity to get its defensive players ready to face a unique scheme.

“Any time you play [The Citadel] in the middle of the year, you’ve basically got three practice days to get out there and try to defend it, which is very difficult,” Lamb, now in his 13th year as a collegiate head coach, continued. “One of the hardest things to do is to implement it with your scout team and try to emulate what they are doing. Our scout team has had more time to work on it and I think that is going to help us with our familiarity.”

Having been picked to finish fifth in the SoCon during the preseason poll, a win against a nationally-ranked league opponent to start the season would undoubtedly make Mercer a legitimate contender in the conference race.

The Bears are confident that they possess the talent and experience necessary to make a run towards the FCS playoffs.

Now, it is simply a matter of building upon last season’s momentum and finding more consistency from one week to the next.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.