A week from now, the Mercer football team will kick off an important season for the program.
The Bears are entering their fourth season overall and their third season in the Southern Conference, and that starts Sept. 1 against The Citadel in a huge conference game. The Bulldogs are ranked in the FCS preseason poll, and the game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Southeast.
That offers Bobby Lamb’s Mercer program a big stage to make a big statement about what kind of season its going to have. And it should be a terrific one.
The Bears have been close to being terrific since they took the FCS world by storm with 10-2 season in their debut campaign in 2013. Things were expected to get tougher as they moved into the Southern Conference play and scholarship play in 2014 while they didn’t have the full allotment of scholarships.
Mercer has held its own, going 6-6 in 2014, including 1-6 in the Southern Conference, and 5-6 in 2015, including 2-5 in the conference. But the Bears have been close to doing much more than just holding their own, losing eight times by single digits in conference games the past two years. Last year, they lost two games in the conference on the final play of the game.
It’s time for those close calls to turn into wins this season. Last year, Mercer returned just about every starter as it continued to work its way to becoming a full-scholarship program. The only problem was that most of the conference teams also returned most of their starters, and it was, in truth, a stacked Southern Conference last year.
This year, the Bears again return most of their starters — 10 on each side of the ball, in fact — but this season, the other conference teams will have to adjust to not having several starters back. Experience and depth finally should be on the Bears’ side with so many returning starters and with 30 seniors on the roster, including many players who have made large contributions to the program.
Yes, the conference is still really good with Chattanooga and The Citadel leading the way and with Samford and Western Carolina and probably even Furman and Wofford in the mix, but Mercer should be right there, too.
That was probably too much to ask the past two years because of the depth and experience of the other teams and Mercer’s needed growth in those areas. But now that they are on more of an even playing field, the Bears have every right to hope for bigger and better things, and that starts against The Citadel.