Head coach: Bobby Lamb (21-14 in three seasons at Mercer; 88-54 in 13 seasons overall)

Date against UTC: Oct. 8 in Chattanooga, 4 p.m.

2015 record: 5-6 (2-5 in SoCon)

Starters returning (O/D/S): 10/10/2

Projected order of finish (coaches/media): 5/4

Local players: Freshman QB Kaelan Riley, Calhoun; Junior WR Chandler Curtis, Calhoun; Freshman TE Truett Moss, Calhoun; Freshman TE Chase Westfall, Dalton

Coming Tuesday: Samford

Last season, the Mercer football team suffered losses in its first four Southern Conference games by a total of 13 points.

The Bears knew they were close.

Then they beat the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 17-14 on Nov. 7, and that win over the No. 3 Football Championship Subdivision team in the country led to a strong finish.

With 20 offensive and defensive starters returning to the fourth-year program this season, the Bears are yelling, "Why not us?"

Despite overall predictions that have them as an average team in the SoCon this season (they were picked fifth in the coaches' preseason poll and fourth in the media poll), the Bears have been mentioned as a trendy choice to make some serious noise in 2016. And they seem prepared for it.

"We take this as a challenge," defensive back Zach Jackson said at last week's SoCon media day. "We've been doubted since we got into the league, so it's nothing really for us to accept the role of 'Why not us?' We just want to shock everybody. We've been the underdog in every game we played because we're a newer team in the conference, but we embrace that mentality.

"We've got to keep that mentality every game we play. We expect to win every game. That's the mentality we have now."

Jackson said that included this year's game at Georgia Tech on Sept. 10, nine days after opening the season against The Citadel, a nationally ranked program and SoCon opponent.

Mercer coach Bobby Lamb knows about building a program. He was very successful in his time as coach at Furman, and he's excited about his first full senior class at Mercer, which he said "helps the head coach out so much."

"We've gone through the process. Gone through the ups and downs of our first two years in the conference where we were short scholarship numbers, short of depth," he said. "We're as deep as we've been, and for us to take the next step, this is a huge year for us, but our guys understand that.

"The most rewarding thing this year is that we have senior leadership, which we've had some in the past. But it's genuine senior leadership this year, so I'm really looking forward to that."

Lamb said that at the end of the year, UTC was "the third-best team in the country" behind five-time defending national champion North Dakota State and Jacksonville State, so to beat the Mocs was big for the Macon, Ga., program.

"It was almost like a sense of relief," offensive lineman Bret Niederreither said. "All the hard work, the ups and downs we went through all season and losing close games finally paid off, because we kind of realized we could beat any team on our schedule.

"It was a great relief on our end and gave us a momentum boost going into the offseason."

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.