After 70-plus years away, Mercer steps back in the ring against a heavyweight
(STATS) - It's been long enough since Mercer and Georgia Tech stepped on the same football field together that a World War broke out in the interim, but the Bears' 87-mile trek up I-75 to Atlanta is more than just the first meeting with the Yellow Jackets since 1938.
For Mercer, there's a bit of finality to what amounts to their first game against a major Division I team since long before it was called Division I.
"We've had a lot of firsts here at Mercer. This may be our last first," coach Bobby Lamb said.
Lamb was the man Mercer hired away from fellow Southern Conference member Furman in 2013 to revive its program, which hadn't played since Nov. 26, 1941. Pearl Harbor happened 11 days later, and Mercer football never made it back.
The milestones have rolled in upon the Bears' return to the gridiron. There was the first recruiting class, the first game and first win (40-37 over Reinhardt in 2013), the first SoCon game (a 25-20 loss to Furman in 2014), and after Saturday's season-opening 24-23 loss to The Citadel, the first vote in the FCS Coaches Poll.
Being the first FBS and Power Five opponent to officially welcome the Bears' program back is actually somewhat fitting for Georgia Tech (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET). After all, the Yellow Jackets' first opponent on the gridiron was Mercer - on campus in Macon - in 1892. Then nicknamed the Baptists, Mercer won 12-6 - the first win in school history.
Things have been quite different since that first meeting, when touchdowns were worth four points and the ensuing conversion two. Mercer hasn't scored on the Yellow Jackets since Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 election, with Georgia Tech heading into Saturday on a 298-0 run in the series. The Yellow Jackets have won 11 or 13 straight meetings, depending on which athletic department you ask (Mercer, for the record, is counting two more beatdowns than Tech).
But enough about the past, which is an attitude both Lamb and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson will certainly be taking this week. In Lamb's case, he has to pick his Bears up off the turf after a third straight loss by two points or fewer to SoCon power The Citadel. The result was better for Johnson - though it took a 4th-and-19 conversion in the waning minutes for the Jackets to will their way past Boston College, 17-14 - but it'd be easy for his players' minds to be elsewhere this week. Across the Atlantic, to be precise, where Tech played the Eagles in rainy Dublin and could still be getting re-acclimated to Eastern Standard Time.
Throw in what some could consider a happy-to-be-there FCS opponent and it'd be somewhat easy for Georgia Tech to find itself complacent Saturday. But Johnson, who spent five years as Georgia Southern's coach when the Eagles were a I-AA program, doesn't figure to be the guy to let that happen.
"I'm sure Mercer is excited to come and play here at Bobby Dodd," Johnson said. "They've got a number of kids from the Atlanta metro area and a lot of in-state players. I know what that would be like having been at Georgia Southern. They'll be fired up and excited to play and we need to be as well."
One thing Lamb's team could find some familiarity with is the offense it'll be trying to slow down. The Citadel runs a triple option very similar to the system employed by Georgia Tech, so Mercer essentially spent its fall camp planning for two games at once.
"We get the advantage of working (against this offense) all preseason camp," Lamb said. "I thought our defense did a really good job of defending it once we got used to the speed of the game. The difference is Georgia Tech gets the ball out to the perimeter a little bit more and the speed is going to be a little bit faster.
Even if a Mercer program that's only recently been revived isn't enough to scare some longtime Yellow Jackets fans, perhaps the coach himself will be. Lamb had just been elevated to the starting quarterback at Furman when the Paladins visited Georgia Tech in 1983, and the sophomore engineered a 17-14 upset - the Jackets' only loss to an FCS program in 30 games. Current Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof was a sophomore on that Jackets team.
Will Lamb bring it up to motivate the Bears prior to Saturday's kickoff?
"It's too far in the past," he said.
TERRIERS BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE?=
Mercer won't be the only SoCon team punching above its weight class Saturday. Wofford, fresh off a season-opening 21-7 win at Tennessee Tech, travels to Oxford (4 p.m. ET) to face an Ole Miss team that figures to be plenty angry after its Labor Day plans went awry. The Rebels raced out to a 28-6 lead on No. 3 Florida State in Orlando on Monday night, and less than 15 minutes later they found themselves trailing 36-28 en route to a 45-34 loss.
"If we are going to be any good, you bounce back from those and traditionally we have done that very well here," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "I expect our kids to respond. It is a long season and one game doesn't make it or break it."
The Rebels' defense will make the awkward transition from facing a Seminoles team that threw 52 passes to a Terriers triple option that was fourth in the FCS with 300.2 rushing yards per game in 2015 and piled up 346 on the ground in their opener.
"This is a tough turnaround," Freeze said. "We got back at 4 a.m. and have got to play the triple option this Saturday, which wasn't real smart on our scheduling. It is totally different, usually you would like to have two weeks to get ready for it and we basically have two days."
Ole Miss' already depleted secondary took a hit in the FSU game, when starting cornerback Ken Webster tore - as Freeze put it - "every ligament in his knee." But Brad Butler and the Terriers aren't the team to exploit that weakness with a passing game that's inept even by triple-option standards. Wofford completed an FCS-low 54 passes last season - two for touchdowns - and attempted only eight against Tennessee Tech.
The Rebels allowed just 3.3 yards per carry last season, 13th nationally, and nine touchdowns. Only Boston College and Alabama yielded fewer.
AROUND THE SOCON=
- Chattanooga at No. 6 Presbyterian (2 p.m. ET): The Mocs faced a D-II team in their opener and the Blue Hose visited MAC member Central Michigan, but still: there's a 112-point gap between these two in terms of point differential. We didn't learn much about Chattanooga in its 66-0 rout of Shorter - though allowing 16 yards on 43 total plays is impressive regardless of the competition - but saw perhaps all we need to know about this matchup last season. The Mocs ran for 293 yards while chewing up nearly 39 minutes of the clock, and they held Presbyterian to 117 total yards in a 21-0 win. Expect more of the same.
- No. 15 The Citadel at Furman (6 ET): The Paladins didn't quite go toe-for-toe with Michigan State, but they were within one possession of the 12th-ranked Spartans deep into the fourth quarter before losing 28-13. They held what's typically a solid MSU running game to 4.3 yards per tote, but now comes one of college football's best ground attacks in The Citadel's triple option. The Bulldogs have racked up 795 yards on the ground - 5.6 per carry - and scored nine TDs in winning the last two meetings with Furman. Citadel coach Brent Thompson hasn't said whether Jordan Black, who started the opener, or Dominique Allen, who started 13 games last season, will get the nod at quarterback in the 94th meeting of this rivalry.
- VMI at Morehead State (6 ET): The Keydets were within two points of Akron in the fourth quarter last Saturday before falling apart late in a 47-24 loss, but they could bounce back here. Morehead State gave up 498 rushing yards while getting clobbered 80-7 by No. 12 James Madison in Week 1. VMI beat Morehead State 43-40 in one of the more exciting contests of the FCS season a year ago, walking off with a win on Dillon Christopher's 34-yard field goal at the gun.
- Gardner-Webb at Western Carolina (6 ET): The Big South's Runnin' Bulldogs lived up to their name in Week 1, gashing Elon for 327 yards and four TDs on the ground in a 31-6 rout. One would think that would bode well against a Catamounts squad that gave up 688 yards of offense - and 7.2 yards per carry - while getting blasted 52-7 at East Carolina. But nine-point favorite Western Carolina should find things far easier back home, where they can get running back Detrez Newsome untracked and unleash Tyrie Adams after the quarterback got his freshman jitters out last week.
- Samford at Central Arkansas (7 ET): Central Arkansas could find itself in the STATS FCS Top 25 with a win over the Bulldogs, who are eyeing those rankings themselves after closing last season with three straight wins and blasting Division II Mars Hill 77-7 in their opener. Samford got the best of the Bears last season in Birmingham, riding Michael Eubank's arm (372 yards, four TDs) to a 45-16 win. Things won't be as easy on the purple-striped field at Estes Stadium, where Central Arkansas will want revenge for a loss that likely kept it out of the playoffs following a 7-4 campaign in 2015. Watch out for the Hayden Hildebrand-to-Jatavious Wilson connection in what should be one of the better FCS games this week.