#26 Mercer 2018 FCS Football Preview

Mercer Bears
Overall Rank: #26
#4 SoCon
 Mercer Logo
For the fourth straight season, Mercer finished with a five or six win season. That spans the entire Southern Conference era after the Bears made the move from the Pioneer League in 2014. Coach Bobby Lamb has turned this into a pretty consistent program, but now they will need to take the next step. With 18 starters returning, this could be the year Mercer finally wins seven or more games. 
2017 Record: 5-6, 4-4
2017 Postseason: None
Coach: Bobby Lamb (32-25 at Mercer, 99-65 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Joe Pizzo
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Kolakowski
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Tee Mitchell, RB, 626 yards
Passing: Kaelan Riley, QB, 2,030 yards
Receiving: Marquise Irvin, WR, 536 yards
Tackles: Eric Jackson, DB, 89
Sacks: Isaiah Buehler, DL, 5.5
Interceptions: Stephen Houzah, DB, 2
Other Key Returnees: TE Sam Walker, LB Will Coneway, LB LeMarkus Bailey, DB Malique Fleming
Key Losses: RB Alex Lakes, WR Chandler Curtis, WR Avery Ward, LB Lee Bennett
Much of the pressure will fall on the shoulders of sophomore signal caller Kaelan Riley. He generally played well last season, throwing for 2,030 yards and 13 touchdowns and adding four more scores on the ground. However, Riley will be expected to take the next step this year and cut back on his interceptions and take more of a leadership role. With Marquise Irvin and tight end Sam Walker returning, Riley does have a couple quality targets to work with. Tee Mitchell was the team’s top rusher a year ago and will take on an even bigger role in 2018. Mercer will need to find some depth behind him, but with Riley’s larger role, the ground game will be able to do enough to keep the chains moving.
The Bears were strong against the run in 2017. Four starters are back in the front seven, but the team will certainly miss linebacker Lee Bennett and his 110 tackles. Will Coneway and LeMarkus Bailey were third and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively, and are more than capable of picking up the slack left behind by the departure of Bennett. The line will be led by senior end Isaiah Buehler, who recorded a team high 5.5 sacks in 2017. Mercer ranked dead last in the Southern Conference in pass defense, but all four starters are back. Eric Jackson recorded 89 tackles last season, while Brandon Coney and Kam Lott are experienced seniors. Harrison Poole proved to be a quality playmaker during his freshman campaign and his continued development could turn the secondary into a much improved unit.
The Bottom Line:
The schedule is a bit more friendly than usual. After taking a trip to Memphis to open up the season, the Bears do not have to worry about playing another FBS opponent. Last season, in their three non-conference games, Mercer played both Alabama and Auburn. This time around the team can actually win two non-conference games with Jacksonville and Yale on the slate. In conference play, a September 15th trip to Samford could set the tone for the rest of the season. That is a very good Samford team and Mercer will get an early opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the conference.
Projected Postseason: None
2017 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 143.4 (65th in nation, 5th in conference)
Passing Offense: 189.0 (78, 6)
Total Offense: 332.4 (80, 6)
Scoring Offense: 24.5 (59, 5)
Rushing Defense: 149.1 (57, 3)
Pass Defense: 233.0 (86, 9)
Total Defense: 382.1 (73, 6)
Scoring Defense: 23.6 (41, 3)
Turnover Margin: 0.82 (16, 1)
Sacks: 1.45 (99, 7)
Sacks Allowed: 1.18 (20, 4)
HERO Sports 2018 Recruit Rankings:
#34 Tony Jones
#36 Kareem Rogers
#105 DeMond Ellison
#111 Brandan Shelnutt
#131 Bryce Lawrence