Mercer and ETSU will decide SoCon title Saturday

Bucs LB Jared Folks/photo courtesy of ETSU athletics

The Game: No. 21/23 Mercer (7-2, 6-1 SoCon at No. 8/10 East Tennessee State (9-1, 6-1 SoCon)

The Venue: William B. Greene Stadium/Johnson City, Tenn

The Time: 1 p.m. EST

The Series: Tied 3-3

The Coaches: Mercer–Drew Cronic (12-8/2nd year at Mercer)/ETSU–Randy Sanders (24-16/4th year at ETSU)

Saturday’s 100th season of SoCon football will come to historic end on Saturday for either East Tennessee State or Mercer when the two square off in Johnson City for the de facto Southern Conference football title matchup.

Mercer is chasing its first-ever Southern Conference or conference title since returning to the gridiron after a 72-year hiatus as a Pioneer Football League member in 2013, while the Bucs are chasing their second SoCon title in a three-year span, and a win at William B. Greene Stadium Saturday would give ETSU its first SoCon Football crown outright and first-ever outright bid to the FCS postseason.

Football reborn in two football-crazed states:

Both the Bucs and Bears made a dedication to rejoin and join the league following the departures of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon following the 2013 season.

Both have football program’s brought back from the proverbial dead. The Bears waited a little longer to restart theirs than ETSU. In 2013, the Bears resurrected their program following seven decades on the shelf under the direction of former Furman head coach Bobby Lamb.

After a successful 10-win season in its first season back, Mercer decided to go from non-scholarship football of the Pioneer League to scholarship football of the Southern Conference. The 2014 campaign would be the Bears’ first season of football in the league.

In 2015, ETSU brought its football program back as an independent member for one season before joining the SoCon in earnest. The Bucs brought back their football program under the direction of former North Carolina head coach Carl Torbush.

Though the Bucs didn’t have the kind of success right away at scholarship football right away that the Bears had at the non-scholarship level in season one back after a 12-year absence, as the Bucs went just 2-9, there were glimpses of potential.

In fact, ETSU and Mercer squared off on the gridiron and the game wasn’t close, with Lamb’s Bears lighting up the scoreboard with a 52-0 win over the Bucs. It would be the final time the two would meet as non-conference members. That meeting back in 2015 marked the first-ever between the two programs.

Mercer’s Story

The Bears would face off against defending champion and No. 16 Furman in their first-ever Southern Conference game on Sept. 6, 2014. Adding even more drama to the already historic matchup was the fact that Furman was the alma mater Lamb, the new Mercer boss in his second season at the helm, would be coaching against the program he helped lead to the national title game as a quarterback in 1985 and led to a SoCon title in 2004 en route to garnering SoCon Coach of the Year honors.

On that warm evening in Macon at the beautiful new Five Star Stadium, Mercer football in the SoCon was officially born, and though heavy underdogs coming in against the more polished, and championship mature Paladins, the Bears put themselves in position to win the game in the fourth quarter before eventually falling 25-20 on a late 33-yard INT return for a score by Furman defensive end Gary Wilkins.

That matchup offered the 12,227 fans in attendance a glimpse of what Mercer could be as a football program, which was a chance to be a championship level football program.

Some seven years later and under Lamb’s former assistant coach at Furman, Drew Cronic, the Bears find themselves in position to claim their first-ever Southern Conference title against one of the program’s that it entered the league with, as ETSU, VMI and Mercer all joined the league within a three-year span following the departures of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon.

The Bears would finish that 2014 season with a majority of non-scholarship, walk-on players and went on to a 6-6 overall record, which included a 1-6 mark in Southern Conference play.

The Bears’ lone league win in 2014 would come in a 27-24 win over VMI on the road. Ironically, Mercer’s lone SoCon loss to date in 2021 has come against the Keydets, who torched the Bears 45-7 in Macon back on Oct. 16 to the defending league champion Keydets.

While Lamb would help lead the program out of obscurity, following a 4-8 season, which included a 3-5 mark in Southern Conference play under the sixth-year head coach, the Bears and president Bill Underwood decided it was time for the program which he resurrected from scratch to go in a different direction.

In another interesting twist to this tale, Mercer would turn to Lamb’s longtime assistant during each of his nine seasons as head coach of the Paladins–Drew Cronic–to be the second head coach of the Mercer football program in its current form. Cronic, who returned to be the Furman offensive coordinator under first-year head coach Clay Hendrix in 2017, helping the Paladins return to the postseason for the first time since 2013, would enjoy big-time success as a head coach at Lenoir Rhyne before being named the Mercer head coach in December of 2019.

Coming into Saturday’s contest, Mercer has an all-time SoCon record of 29-30, and will be playing its 60th game as league member Saturday. A win would give the Bears a SoCon title, as well as a chance to even its league mark to .500 in now its eighth official season as a league member.

The Bucs and Bears will be meeting for the seventh time on Saturday when the two tee-it-up in Johnson City for the league crown. The Bears claimed a 21-13 win over the Bucs at Five Star Stadium this past spring, allowing VMI to take a step closer to a SoCon regular-season crown and prevent ETSU from remaining in the league title race.

ETSU’s Story

Following what was a tough 2015 season, which saw just a total of two wins, East Tennessee State would go on to show glimpses of being able to be a title contender in the SoCon in the very near future, as the Bucs would threaten a .500 record with a 5-6 mark. An opening season 20-17 was evidence of just how far the Bucs had come in just a year since having football back on campus.

The Bucs would finish 2-6 in Southern Conference play in their first season as a league member, which was good enough for a sixth-place finish in ETSU’s first season back as a Southern Conference football member.

The Bucs would post league wins over both Western Carolina (W, 34-31) and and No. 18 Samford (W, 15-14) to bookend their conference slate with wins in a season that would see a record four teams chosen for the FCS postseason. Losses in that first Southern Conference season back in the league since 2003 came at Mercer (L, 13-21), at The Citadel (L, 10-45), vs. Furman (L, 7-52), at VMI (L, 7-30), vs. Chattanooga (L, 7-37) and at Wofford (L, 0-31).

The 2017 season saw the Bucs go 4-7 overall with an identical 2-6 league mark, which was once again good enough for a seventh-place finish in league play. Wins in league play would come against Mercer (W, 26-23 OT) and VMI (W, 24-6).

Probably no one could have foreseen what was coming following the 2016 after having posted just a 4-12 record in just two seasons back as a Southern Conference member. However, it would turn out to be a magical run and a breakthrough run for the ETSU football program in 2018.

First, it would mark the end of the road for the man the helped bring ETSU football back, in Carl Torbush, as he would announce his retirement following the ’17 campaign, making the way for a new head coach most ETSU fans would be very familiar win, in Randy Sanders.

Sanders, who was the former quarterbacks coach for the Tennessee Volunteers and was a part of the 1998 national title run for the Vols, returned to the sidelines in the Volunteer State as the leader of the Bucs football program going forward in 2018.

While most figured he’d figure the 2018 campaign cutting his teeth as the new head coach of the Bucs in just ETSU’s third season back at the helm, that would match Sanders’ timeline for success in Johnson City.

With a group of talented and veteran players returning to the fold for the Bucs, ETSU would break through and win its first-ever Southern Conference regular-season title, tying with both Wofford and Furman for the regular-season title, and the Bucs would return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1996 season and for just the second time in school history by finishing 8-4 overall and 6-2 in league play.

The Bucs would win their six Southern Conference games by a combined 17 points, with the season turning in a positive direction with one of the miraculous come-from-behind wins in school history. The Bucs would trail Furman 27-6 with about 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter in their SoCon home opener against Furman.

That’s when Sanders made the change under center, subbing out Temple transfer Logan Marchi and putting in the veteran Austin Herink. The rest, they say, is history. It was if Herink put on a cape, and he could do virtually no wrong in leading the Bucs all the way back from the dead, as he helped the Bucs to the largest come-from-behind win in program history, as the Bucs posted a 29-27 win over the Paladins.

From there, ETSU would only lose games in league play on the road at No. 12 Wofford (L, 17-30) and vs. Samford (L, 27-38), but managed to qualify for the FCS postseason as an at-large, with Wofford qualifying as the auto-bid winner, as the tiebreaker would be decided on least points allowed.

The odd team left out would be Furman. ETSU went on the road in the opening round of the postseason against perennial OVC power Jacksonville State, and after holding a third quarter lead in the contest, a costly fumble late in the contest by star running back Quay Holmes would ultimately prove crucial, as the Gamecocks would hold off the Bucs 34-27 in there opening round of the FCS playoffs.

The 2019 season would see many of the same wins that went the Bucs way in close fashion in 2018 go the other way, as the much younger ETSU Bucs lost six of their seven SoCon games by a touchdown or less in a reverse trend to the previous campaign. Despite going just 3-9 overall and posting its worst league record (1-7) since returning to the SoCon, there was still positive optimism going forward towards the 2020.

Behind a new quarterback and first-time starter Tyler Riddell under center, most figured the Bucs would only get better going forward. Then COVID-19 hit, moving the 2020 season from the fall to the spring.

When the Bucs finally took the field in the spring, it would end up playing only six of what was supposed to be an eight-game slate, with both Wofford and Chattanooga opting out of the spring during the season and before either played the Bucs.

ETSU went 4-2, with the lone losses of the spring coming against Furman (L, 13-17) and on the road at Mercer (L, 13-21), with that loss officially taking the Bucs out of both the SoCon title race.

ETSU’s 24-17 win over No. 10 VMI was the lone time the Keydets, who ended up winning the spring SoCon title, and that gave ETSU confidence going forward into the 2021 fall campaign.

The Bucs, along with Samford, were one of the “first four out” in the FCS playoffs in the spring, according to the ESPN selection show panelists.

The Bucs have been example of an improving Southern Conference this season, and knocked off Vanderbilt (23-3) in the season opener, and have lost only once in 10 outings this season. That lone setback came in a 21-16 mid-season clash against Chattanooga. It has put the Bucs in position for another first, which is a first SoCon outright crown.

Since returning to the Southern Conference officially in 2016, the Bucs have posted a 21-24 record in the league.

Predicting the Game:
If you’re looking for a lot of offense, this probably isn’t the game for you. In fact, I fully expect this game to be a defensive slugfest and that’s because that type of game seems to favor Mercer’s chances of winning.

The Bears lone loss in league play came at Five Star Stadium in what was a bit of a one-off type contest, as early turnovers by Mercer spelled out what was going to be a long afternoon, as the Bears dropped a 45-7 home contest to the Keydets.

Mercer quarterback Fred Payton (91-of-164 passing, 1,288 yds, 10 TDs, 7 INTs) leads a Bears offense that has a bevy of tricky formations, but a lot of it is window dressing to set up different ways for talented running backs duo Fred Davis (145 rush att, 776 yds, 12 TDs, 5.4 YPC/12 rec, 111 yds, 9.2 YPR) and Brandon Marshall (68 rush att, 334 yds, 3 TDs, 4.9 YPG) to find ways to get yards on the ground. When Payton does go to the air, they will look to Devron Harper (22 rec, 376 yds, 1 TD, 17.1 YPR) and Ty James (18 rec, 387 yds, 6 TDs, 21.5 YPR).

While the Bears rank 11th nationally in rushing offense (214.6 YPG), its been a pretty tough defense to break through this season, with the Bears ranking 19th nationally in total defense (316.6 YPG). Leading the talented orange crush defense, with linebacker Ken Standley (42.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs, 3 FRs) leading the unit.

ETSU’s ground oriented offense has been led by Tyler Riddell (147-of-242 passing, 1,869 yds, 13 TDs, 3 INTs) once again this season, and he’s steadily improved with each outing this season.

Riddell has two of the top running backs in FCS to hand the ball to, in Quay Holmes (213 rush att, 1,299 yds, 15 TDs, 6.1 YPR/16 rec, 191 yds, 1 TD, 11.9 YPR) and Jacob Saylors (120 rush att, 932 yds, 10 TDs, 7.8 YPC/12 rec, 128 yds, 1 TD, 10.7 YPR), who both went for over 200 yards rushing the last time out in the 56-35 win at Western Carolina last weekend. Saylors set a new school record with 266 yards to go with three rushing scores in the win over the Catamounts.

While the Bucs favor the ground, they can be balanced offensively, as evidenced by big-play threat wideout Will Huzzie’s (45 rec, 683 yds, 3 TDs, 15.2 YPR) numbers through the first 10 games this season.

The Bucs have seen some of their defensive numbers take a hit in recent weeks, but still have the nation’s No. 55 ranked defense (360.5 YPG). The Bucs have been led on the defensive side of the football by Donovan Manuel (97 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 QBHs).

I feel like ETSU wins this game 21-17, though I think Mercer gets some help and gets the SoCon a second bid. I don’t see a way that Chattanooga or VMI has a path to the postseason, however, unfortunately.

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