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Mercer embraces national spotlight in season finale against Alabama

Avery Braxton

Avery Braxton

Avery Braxton, Staff Writer

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Mercer Football turns its sights to the number one team in the nation this week after closing conference play in victory last Saturday at FCS No. 22/25 Western Carolina, 35-33. The team will travel to Tuscaloosa this week to battle the FBS No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in the finale of the 2017 regular season.

The Bears improved to 5-5 on the season and 4-4 in conference play, equaling their Southern Conference record from a year ago. Unable to find a spot in the FCS playoffs, the squad embraced the role of spoiler and effectively ruined Western Carolina’s chances at a postseason berth with a 5-3 conference record.

[Western Carolina] had a lot to play for. We were stumbling along there and didn’t do a very good job the week before,” said Head Coach Bobby Lamb. “To win that game on the road at Western Carolina – they had a big crowd there and were ready for the playoffs – is good to see.”

Now the Bears turn their attention to Alabama, Head Coach Nick Saban and the undefeated Crimson Tide. Alabama is sitting atop the FBS rankings after defeating Mississippi State. Fans can be sure that Saban won’t allow his squad to look past Mercer before its big SEC West matchup against Auburn next week. Lamb said his team recognizes the tough task at hand.

“I told the team yesterday that we’re playing the number one team in the nation. I’ve coached 31 years in a lot of FBS stadiums and this is the first time I’ll have ever coached against the number one team in the nation,” Lamb said. “It will be a great experience for our kids to go [to Bryant-Denny Stadium] and see what it is about.”

The Bears already have experience with the SEC this season, facing then FBS No.15 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. A 24-10 loss still had a lot of positives to take away, including a five forced turnover performance by the defense. Mercer will need a similar effort by its defense and stay within the chains on offense this week.

If there was any fear in Mercer, players at Monday’s press conference did not show it.

“I’m a competitor. At any stage,” said runningback Tee Mitchell. “You get excited to play those games. Guys who love to compete and want to see themselves against the best in the game get excited for this game.”

“There’s no secret. They are bigger, stronger and faster. But like against Auburn, we’re just going to go out and give it our all,” said linebacker Lee Bennett. “We’re just going to go have fun. That’s the name of the game.”

Mercer also has the unique opportunity to be in the national spotlight for the second time against a SEC foe as an FCS school. This time it will be on a bigger stage as Alabama is the top team in the nation.

Lamb appreciates what the extra attention does for his program. A few years ago Mercer Football was only just returning as a Pioneer Football League, no scholarship team. Asked what he would have done five years ago if he was told he’d be facing Alabama in the future…

“I would have probably laughed at you. Five years ago … we really weren’t looking past year one,” Lamb said. “At the time I took this job, I had no idea we would be in the Southern Conference and that we would be playing the number one team in the nation. It’s been a quick ride, but a fun ride as well.”

Mercer continues to build its brand as a football school where mid-major recruits can potentially show their stuff on the highest stage. Last season was its first experiment facing a Power-5 school in Georgia Tech. This season has two SEC schools on the calendar and Mercer has matchups scheduled with Memphis, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Yale and Alabama through 2023.

Mercer has collected pretty pennies so far from their FBS matchups. The Bears collected $300,000 from Georgia Tech in 2016. They’ll make over $1 million collectively from their SEC West foes in 2017. Still the exposure for the program is just as important.

“It puts your name out there. Everyone knows that we started football five years ago and they now know we’re in Macon, Georgia,” Lamb said. “It gets our name on a national stage and as we continue to build our brand here at Mercer, that’s what it is all about. This is a huge step for us.”

Kick-off in Bryant-Denny Stadium is set for 12 p.m. EST.

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Mercer embraces national spotlight in season finale against Alabama