Back in 2013, the Mercer Bears kicked off their first season, and no one really knew what to expect.
What does non-scholarship football look like? What is the Pioneer Football League?
Sure, we knew what Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Fort Valley State football looked like. But this new addition to the state football scene was an unknown.
Well, we all know what to expect now. After moving quickly to the Southern Conference in 2014 and working their way to an even playing field with their conference foes in scholarships, the Bears have continued to build and improve each season.
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Mercer has an exciting brand of football — maybe too exciting at times for its fans with all of those close, gut-wrenching games — and entering the program’s fifth season, Bobby Lamb and his Bears appear to be ready to take things to the next level.
Sure, Lamb’s program lost a lot of leadership and good players with last year’s large senior class, but the Bears have a ton of talent and the most depth they have had. They get to show that off Thursday night at Five Star Stadium against Jacksonville in their season opener, and it should be a terrific season ahead.
Southern Conference title? Maybe not, but maybe. The Bears certainly should be in the mix, and that would put them right in the mix for the FCS playoffs.
And “in the mix” should be the theme for this season for fans of local and state teams.
In its second season under head coach Kirby Smart, is Georgia ready to take a big step forward and compete for national titles? No. But the Bulldogs should be in the mix to win the SEC East and get to Atlanta and see what Alabama looks like up close and personal. Reaching the SEC championship game, even with a loss, would be a big step forward for Smart’s program. The Bulldogs open Saturday against Appalachian State in a game that will be tougher than most Georgia fans realize.
Georgia Tech’s hopes took a hit this month when Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team, but Paul Johnson’s team will still be in the mix in the ACC Coastal Division. Defiant Paul Johnson is my favorite Paul Johnson, and there’s no doubt he will have his team ready to play this season to prove people wrong. Even with a tough opener, against Tennessee on Monday, don’t count out the Yellow Jackets.
Fort Valley State won the SIAC title in Kevin Porter’s first season as its head coach, and the Wildcats return a lot of that talent from last year’s team. The Wildcats weren’t picked to repeat in the conference, but again, they will be in the mix. Fort Valley State gets going Thursday with a difficult opener at West Georgia.
And then there’s Georgia Southern, which struggled last year in Tyson Summers’ first season as its head coach. Will the Eagles be in the mix in the Sun Belt Conference? That’s not likely, but they should be improved with some changes to the coaching staff and the focus back on the option. The Eagles open Saturday night at Auburn.