Among the college football postseason awards, which are believed to number in the low millions, somebody ought to dole one to the Mercer University Bears of Macon, Ga., for their scheduling valor. Good payouts be damned, it’s still true that a program reborn only in 2013, sitting in fifth place in the Southern Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision, somehow finds a season in which it played at Auburn on Sept. 16 and will play at Alabama on Saturday. You may cringe now.
Actually, skip the cringe. While nobody much likes this traditional November week when Southeastern Conference teams tend to play outmanned teams from plucky never-never lands, maybe we could rethink it a tad. Mercer will play at Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe at Auburn, Wofford at South Carolina and UAB at Florida, and maybe we shouldn’t feel so sorry for the little four — especially not UAB, which might just win.
Of course, it’s traditional to feel sorry for the Mercers, and some feel proactively sorry around Macon, Mercer Coach Bobby Lamb said by telephone Thursday. They’re asking questions such as, “How are you going to play them?” They mean it not strategically, but sort of spiritually, in the interest of avoiding a lasting demoralization. But that’s not how the mind typically works in the athlete, who yearns to measure himself or herself against the standard. Mercer, with its seven or eight pro prospects (by Lamb’s estimate), will play Alabama, with its seven or eight pro prospects at every position (a mild exaggeration), and maybe some of those guys can reconvene on some NFL field later on.
Besides, Mercer’s athletes did have themselves a heady day at Auburn on Sept. 16.
For nearly nine minutes of the fourth quarter, from 13:48 remaining till 4:50 was left on the clock, the score stood at 17-10 Auburn, and the Auburn fans who weren’t too miffed to exit already surely felt miffed to remain. As of that 13:48 mark, Mercer had gone 83 yards on 12 plays for Marquise Irvin’s seven-yard touchdown reception from Kaelan Riley. Lamb said he thought to pinch himself, wondering, “How did we get here?” He said: “Everybody on the sideline, from the managers to the trainers to the backup players to the team doctors, everybody became engaged with the game. You could just feel that sense of engagement.”
Auburn won, 24-10, but the Associated Press, generally not prone to pillory parties, witnessed Auburn’s five turnovers and labeled it “an inexcusable display of sloppiness.” And in one of those nutty moments when a winning coach doesn’t really sound like a winning coach, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn told reporters, “It kind of snowballed on us.”
“I can tell you this,” Lamb said. “When you play in a game like that, you try to stay as close as you can for as long as you can. Because there’s no pressure on you. All the pressure’s on the other team.” If you guess he’s going to mention to his players that very thing Saturday, bingo for you.
Macon, about 2 1/2 hours east of Auburn and two hours south of Athens, Ga., is abundant in Auburn and Georgia fans. So Lamb could point out to his players that, as Auburn fans spent this past week needling Georgia fans, one of the stitches in their needling has been Mercer, and the fact that it gained 100 rushing yards at Auburn, where then-No. 1 Georgia squeezed out just 46 in last Saturday’s 40-17 loss to the Tigers.
On Mercer’s 132-mile bus ride home from Auburn, Lamb, per habit, walked toward the back of the bus among the players so he could glean their reactions and give them a good listen. “For them to play in a 10,000-seat stadium every week, and all of a sudden you show up and there’s 90,000 [at Auburn], they thought that was pretty neat, obviously,” he said. “They talked about the atmosphere.”
Some of them also spoke of another byproduct of opposing the large and the fast, and especially that scary Auburn defensive line: heightened soreness. While football is football and you can tear your ACL anywhere, as Lamb said, when you visit the SEC, “You strive a little harder, and the collisions are a little bigger.”
Lamb gave them that Sunday off, breaking habit, before they all had to turn and concentrate on their ensuing trip to East Tennessee State. Such a turn amounts to one of the hardest tricks in coaching — witness Troy winning at LSU, then losing at home to a good South Alabama program — and Mercer fell, 26-23 in overtime, after leading 20-10 through three quarters. It can be hard to steel one’s back again when so many people have been patting it.
As Mercer plans its 285-mile trip to dreaded Tuscaloosa, toting its 5-5 record, two factors should tamp down any outpouring of pity. For one, since resuming football in 2013 after eschewing it from 1942 to 2012, the Bears’ game at Auburn wasn’t the only time they aced their visit to the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision. They spent their 2014 and 2015 seasons looking forward to their visit to Georgia Tech on Sept. 10, 2016, and then something funny happened there.
They trotted 75 yards in nine plays for Avery Ward’s 32-yard touchdown catch from John Russ halfway through the first quarter, and they led 7-0, prompting something glorious: The 7,000 or so Mercer fans in attendance pointed their cameras toward the scoreboard and recorded the moment for perpetuity. The Bears trailed 21-7 at halftime but manned their way 61 yards in 17 plays after halftime for a field goal, announcing themselves as formidable enough that the Yellow Jackets found it necessary to fake a punt, which they converted soon thereafter as they surged to a 35-10 win.
It’s in those second halves, Lamb said, when the feeling of the 85 FBS scholarships set against the 63 FCS scholarships begins to set in. This is quite some 85 he will oppose Saturday, and the second half could be mirthless.
For the other factor coming Saturday, Lamb will coach in Bryant-Denny Stadium, named partly for the man Lamb’s father used to consult. When Bear Bryant went to the wishbone offense, so did Ray Lamb, the Georgia high school coaching maven who knew the Bear and would travel to Tuscaloosa to study the Bear. Ray Lamb won three state titles at two schools, reached the Georgia high school coaches Hall of Fame and led his son to say this, years on: “I grew up 18 miles from Athens, and my dad and I were about the biggest Alabama fans you could find.”
They saw the Crimson Tide in person only once that the son can recall, when it played at Georgia Tech.
Now, Bobby Lamb will see the Crimson Tide from unusually up close.
His father, 81, offered advice: “Play hard. And make sure you take care of the ball.”
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