ATLANTA — The team from right down Interstate 75 is eager to take on the big boys.
In some ways, this will feel almost like a home game for Mercer.
The Bears are making the 87-mile trip from Macon to Atlanta on Saturday to take on Georgia Tech, their first game against a top-level school since bringing back the private university’s long-dormant football program three years ago as part of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Mercer has some 40 players from Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs.
“It’s very exciting,” said offensive lineman Bret Niederreither, a Pennsylvania native and one of the few Mercer players from outside the state. “A lot of guys on our team are from Georgia and the Atlanta area, so they’re ready to go.”
While the schools are less than a two-hour drive apart, this will be their first meeting since 1938.
Mercer dropped its program during World War II and didn’t return to the gridiron until 2013, eventually joining the Southern Conference.
Now, the Bears (0-1) are taking a big step up in competition.
Coach Bobby Lamb is hoping for plenty of support at 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium, the largest venue his fledgling program has played in.
“Obviously we’ve had a lot of firsts here at Mercer,” Lamb said. “This will be our first FBS game, and what better way to start that then in our home state and in Atlanta, where we have over 30,000 alumni.”
Georgia Tech (1-0) opened its season with a game much farther from home, traveling to Dublin, Ireland to take on Atlantic Coast Conference foe Boston College.
The Yellow Jackets rallied for a lackluster 17-14 victory , scoring the winning touchdown in the final minute but doing little to impress coach Paul Johnson. He promised plenty of lineup changes if his team, coming off a dismal 3-9 showing a year ago, doesn’t show signs of improvement.
Johnson is also urging his team not to take Mercer lightly, even though the Yellow Jackets have a clear edge is speed, size and talent.
Two year ago, Georgia Tech barely escaped with a 42-38 victory over Georgia Southern, which was in its transition stage moving up to FBS from the Southern Conference.
Mercer, Johnson fretted, could pose a similar challenge if the Yellow Jackets are caught looking ahead.
“I’m sure they’re fired up and excited to play,” he said. “We need to be, too.”
Some things to watch for in Saturday’s game:
LINEUP CHANGES: Johnson mentioned punter, A-back and the offensive line as positions that could have new starters this week. He was especially disenchanted with fifth-year senior Ryan Rodwell, virtually guaranteeing that someone else will be handling the punting duties against Mercer. Also, freshman B-back Dedrick Mills, who scored the winning touchdown against Boston College, was suspended for the game for violating team rules. Marcus Marshall will likely get the start.
GOTTA GET RUNNING: Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense bogged down in Week 1, managing only 119 yards rushing and an average of 2.7 yards per carry, one of the worst showings in Johnson’s nine seasons at the helm. The coach will be looking to get more production out of the A-backs, who combined for only 3 yards on the ground.
JUST FOR KICKS: Both teams have reliable kickers. Georgia Tech’s Harrison Butker booted a clutch 40-yarder against Boston College that began the fourth-quarter comeback, and all four of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Mercer’s Cole Fisher went 3-for-3 last week in a 24-23 loss to Citadel, including a career-best 47-yarder.
CLUTCH THOMAS: Mercer will have its hands full trying to defend Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas , who came through with a stirring performance in the closing minutes against Boston College. On the winning drive, he escaped a sure sack on one play, completed a 22-yard pass on fourth-and-19, and then connected on a 26-yarder when facing third-and-10.
FLAG ON THE BEARS: Mercer was flagged for 10 penalties totaling 103 yards in its opener, a far cry from the team that was one of the least penalized in the nation a year ago. The Bears won’t be able to afford that sort of sloppiness against Georgia Tech.