Behind Enemy Goal Lines

Mercer University’s football program will reboot when it hosts the Reinhardt Eagles, another first-year team from in Georgia, this Saturday night in Macon.

A beautiful, 10,000 seat stadium, equally aesthetically pleasing facilities, a new band and a lot of raw pride will finally serve purpose for the Bears. Mercer has not fielded a varsity football team since 1941, and their new Division I FCS squad is getting a two-year jump on KSU in terms of leveraging position in the ever-changing college football environment in the state.

Thanksgiving day smack talk could very soon be more than just banter regarding Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets. Aside from the traditional Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry, two new in-state rivalries are surely close to heating up.

Georgia State, which began it’s program in 2010, has moved from the FCS division of Division I football to the FBS. The Panthers will join the Sun Belt this season, and traditional FCS power Georgia Southern will also become part of that conference next fall.

Suddenly the FCS level is cleared, only to leave three programs in the lanes. Two of those programs are KSU and Mercer. The rivalry is inevitable, and it should be fierce.

“We’re looking forward to playing a lot of Mercer as we go through it,” KSU Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams said. “But, there’s differences in us. They’re a smaller, private school in Macon, and then you have Savannah State—an HBCU school down in Savannah. And then you have us.”

“We all offer something,” Williams said.

Mercer will replace Georgia Southern in the Southern Conference, which has built a reputation as the best league in the FCS. Mercer’s head coach, Bobby Lamb, coached in the league while at Furman.

Lamb sees many positives in the changing college football environment in Georgia.

“The state of Georgia has been underpopulated for years on places for high school kids to go play college football,” Lamb said. “With the movement toward adding football in this state—just in 2013 you have Berry, Reinhardt and Mercer, and of course 2015 Kennesaw State and I think 2009 maybe was Georgia State’s first year. Going not too far back you’ve got LaGrange and Shorter starting in 2005 and 2006, so I know all of the high school coaches are excited about the expansion in the state and schools that are playing football. And of course, everybody is trying to move up. Georgia State is moving up. Georgia Southern is moving up. Both of those moves obviously gave us an opportunity to move into a great conference, so I think the landscape is ever changing. You’ve always got to stay up front and think forward, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

KSU is still two years away from football, but this fall marks the first time incoming students have arrived knowing for sure that they’ll have a football team to cheer for. Brian Bohannon, a former assistant at Georgia Tech, was hired in March to be the school’s first football coach. Since then, an entire coaching staff has been put into place, recruits have already committed to the program, and half inaugural season tickets are already flying off the books.

According to Williams, some of the next steps include adding a band and a band director, auxiliary positions within the program, as well as finding a conference to play in.

KSU’s athletics teams will stay in the Atlantic Sun Conference, which doesn’t sponsor football, while the football team will be an associate member of a different league. Campbell, Jacksonville and Stetson, all of which have competed or still compete in the A-Sun, field football teams in the Pioneer League, though Williams wants to keep his team in the southeast.

“People have spoken about the Big South, the SoCon and the OVC,”Williams said. “Right now we don’t control that destiny. We’ve got to wait and see what happens and be patient.”

Williams said he hopes for that development to take place in the next few months.

Despite likely not settling into the same conference as the Bears, the rivalry will surely happen through non- conference scheduling.

“We’re looking forward to playing a lot of Mercer as we go through it,”Williams said. “They get a little jump on us, but that’s okay. We’re not worried about that.”

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