› 2016 record: 6-5› Season opener: Aug. 31 vs. Jacksonville› Date against UTC: Oct. 14 in Macon, Ga.› Preseason ranking (coaches/media): 5/5› Coming Tuesday: Samford
Last year, despite being predicted to finish seventh in the Southern Conference, Wofford was considered by coaches and media as a team to watch out for. The Terriers went on to win 10 games and advance to the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals.
This year, that talk was directed toward Mercer.
The Bears have a couple of holes to fill - most importantly, finding a replacement for four-year starting quarterback John Russ - but the return of 13 offensive and defensive starters from a 6-5 team has them primed for a solid season.
After resuming football prior to the 2013 season, the program is now on a level playing field as far as scholarships, with four full signing classes in tow.
"Because of that, we ought to have expectations to move up in the league," coach Bobby Lamb said recently at SoCon media day. "We now have depth on both sides of the line, and that's a huge plus for us going into next year."
Mercer players know about the talk, and they're not shrinking away from it or deflecting it. They're embracing the expectations, knowing that regardless of the program's fifth-place preseason ranking in the league, this could be a big year.
Mocs, SoCon preview stories
- Shelton Felton's outside linebackers 'competing' well for UTC
- Josh Cardiello leading as Mocs' O-line progresses
- Competition fierce for UTC defensive backs
- Alejandro Bennifield shows leadership amid Mocs tensions
- SoCon Preview: Favored Wofford Terriers hope to maintain 'picked seventh' approach
- Alumnus Chris Cook making an impact now as UTC assistant coach
- SoCon Preview: Western Carolina
- Mocs better at receiver with additions
- VMI plans to lean more toward running this year
- Defense puts the heat on offense in UTC's opening practice [photos]
- Quarterback 'Duck' expects more balance in Samford offense
- Five questions for the Mocs as preseason practice starts
- Mocs lack experience on special teams
- Mercer confident about new season
- Key for UTC linebackers is their adjustment to 3-4 scheme
- Cleveland's Austin Herink clear leader for 'more mature' ETSU team
- Strong defensive line still a UTC trademark
- The Citadel keeping expectations high despite key losses
- UTC to offer VIP tents for fans at Finley Stadium
- UTC offensive line must gain experience
- Mocs picked fourth with league-high 10 preseason All-SoCon players
- Commissioner John Iamarino sees 'quality,' healthy parity in SoCon football
- Mocs have mixture of experience, transfers, youth at receiver
- UTC football picked fourth in SoCon preseason poll
- Richardre Bagley, Darrell Bridges experienced running backs for Mocs
- UTC not likely to be picked No. 1 again today
- UTC quarterback Alejandro Bennifield solid, but questions loom behind starter
In each season since joining the SoCon, the Bears have doubled their league wins total, from one in 2014 to two in 2015 to four last season.
"It's time to take that next step, get towards the top of the conference and win that championship," offensive lineman Thomas Marchman said. "That's our expectation, and there's nothing to deal with. It's what we are, it's what we want, so we're going to definitely put it on the forefront, talk about it and make it our goal.
"As far as added pressure, there's no added pressure, because we still haven't made a name for ourselves in the conference. There's a lot of work to be done, and we're still earning that right."
The Bears finished 4-4 in the SoCon, with their four losses to playoff teams. They fell by one point to The Citadel in the season opener, by five to Samford and by 10 to Wofford. The only lopsided league loss was a 52-31 defeat at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a team the Bears had beaten the season before in Macon, Ga.
"We approach things the same way," Lamb said. "The old adage is that you can only play one at a time.
"The thing about this league is that there could have been a different champion because of the different results. Week in and week out, it comes down to who can be the toughest, most physical and who can have the most execution in the fourth quarter."
The Bears feel as though it's their time.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.