As many college football programs were building a legacy, Mercer’s football program was held stagnant due to a decision to suspend football in 1941. The Bears would not reinstate football until the 2013 season.
Mercer joined the Pioneer League for one season before making the full transition to the Southern Conference in 2014. The Bears wasted no time in 2013 making their impact felt with a 10-2 season, but the move to the SoCon the next year came with growing pains.
The Bears did not finish with a winning conference record until the spring 2020 season, which correlated with the hire of head coach Drew Cronic. Cronic arrived in Macon, GA with a 49-6 overall record as a collegiate head coach.
In his first season at Mercer, Cronic led the Bears to three consecutive FCS Top-20 wins in the spring season. The Bears carried the momentum into 2021, in which Mercer was one game away from winning the first conference championship in school history as ETSU defeated Mercer, 38-35, in the final game of the regular season.
Last season the Bears lost a two-overtime game to Samford, 50-44, as the Bears’ playoff hopes fell one game short again. The question now shifts to … Will 2023 be the breakthrough season for Mercer?
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Quarterback Carter Peevy may be the x-factor that many experts are overlooking for the Bears. Peevy stepped into a starting role as a true freshman in the spring season after Coastal Carolina transfer Fred Payton III had to sit out due to transfer rules.
Peevy led the Bears to a historic season. He earned a spot on the SoCon All-Freshman Team and finished the season with 1,318 passing yards and 12 total touchdowns in only nine games. He could have transferred these past two seasons as he watched Payton lead the offense, but he decided to wait for his opportunity to shine.
That opportunity has now arrived with Payton’s departure.
The Bears will be able to pair Peevy with one of the best wide receiver cores in the country. All-Americans Ty James and Devron Harper both return for their senior seasons. James led the SoCon in receiving yards (1,105), receiving touchdowns (13), and yards per reception (21.3) last season. Harper broke multiple school records last season while leading the conference in total touchdowns (16) and all-purpose yards (1,878).
The defense should take another step forward as the Bears return 10 of the top 11 leading tacklers from last season. Preseason FCS All-American Lance Wise will lead the Bears’ secondary, which also returns All-Conference cornerback Cam Sims, TJ Moore, Richie Coffey, and Myles Redding.
All-Conference linebackers Isaac Dowling and Ken Standley will lead a talented Mercer front seven. Two-time All-Conference selection Solomon Zubairu is the leader on the defensive front for the Bears, which also returns Chris Hill and Savio Frazier.
The emergence of the transfer portal has changed college football. It takes a special culture to create experienced teams, such as Mercer, at the FCS level. James spoke about the decision to return to Mercer and the opportunity to make history this season in his interview with The Bluebloods earlier this offseason.
“If we’re all good enough to play at whatever level, Power-Five or Group of Five, how about we go win a ring here. Let’s put together one last ride and having that relationship with my brothers and teammates … That’s not something you’re going to find easily at another school.”
The first conference championship and FCS playoff appearance in school history would be a historic accomplishment, but there is even more history on the table for the Bears.
Since the program’s inception in 1891, there have been zero Mercer players who have been selected in the NFL Draft.
Former Mercer guard Jason Poe received some buzz before the 2022 NFL Draft but was signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Francisco 49ers. Poe spent the 2022 season on the practice squad and is now competing for a spot on the 53-man active roster this season.
The Bears have multiple players who will receive strong consideration in the upcoming 2024 NFL Draft. James and Harper were both named to the 2024 Shrine Bowl 1000 and were highlighted by the Senior Bowl as potential “Small School” standouts.
All the boxes seem to be checked for the Bears entering this season … A talented quarterback with starting experience, elite weapons at the wide receiver position, an experienced offensive line, and continuity on the defensive side of the ball.
Windows of opportunity in college football do not stay open for long. Mercer has all the pieces to have a breakthrough season in 2023. The question remains … Will the Bears be able to break through the glass ceiling or will this season be another “almost” story for a program on the rise?