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Mercer's Long, Hard Road to First Playoff Appearance is Finally Complete

The Bears are playoff-bound for the first time in program history.

NCAA Football: Mercer at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The end of November is not a time of year that's been kind to Mercer and its fans as of late. The FCS playoffs are always getting underway but the Bears are never a part of them, despite often coming cruelly close. This season, though, the mood down in Macon, Georgia is different. On Sunday afternoon, for the first time ever while watching the annual selection show, the Mercer faithful were greeted to the sight they've waited on for a good, long while. Their name popped up on the screen and it marked an end to many years of disappointment.

When senior safety Lance Wise intercepted Samford’s Michael Hiers back on November 11 to seal the season finale victory over the Bulldogs, the Bears bench erupted in raucous celebration. Wise’s pick put the icing on a program-record eighth Division I win and everyone knew it was likely the magic number to at last get over the playoff hump.

If any team knew what that threshold was and what it was like to be on the wrong side of it, it was this bunch.

A year ago at this time, Mercer looked on in disappointment while that very same Samford squad celebrated a double overtime victory. That loss, a second straight at the time, ensured that the Bears’ 2022 campaign ended at 7-4. The team spent that Saturday night and the following Sunday morning sweating it out, not knowing if their name would be called. It, of course, wasn’t. It was a disheartening end to a season that, at one point, saw the team hold a 6-1 record. It was also a conclusion that felt all too familiar.

A year prior, Mercer experienced a similarly gut-wrenching ending to their year. After winning six of seven, the Bears faced SoCon foe East Tennessee State to close out their season. In another back-and-forth contest that came right down to the wire, Mercer allowed 17 fourth quarter points. Trailing by three with just seconds left their hopes rested on kicker Devin Folser to at least make it last a little longer. Folser's 42-yard field goal attempt to tie missed, however, crowning ETSU that year's conference champ and keeping the Bears out of the bracket by a narrow margin.

Those two season endings, as tough as they were, weren't the only heartaches. They simply brought years of frustration to a head. The Mercer program since its inception in the late 1800s and re-introduction into football ten years ago, has been hit with bad luck and prolonged mediocrity throughout much of its existence.

After disbanding the team in 1941, the Bears came back to the gridiron in 2013, spending one year in the Pioneer League before finding a home in the SoCon. That first year back saw the team win 10 games but a late season loss to Marist cost them the spot right at the end. Butler would end up going instead.

Since then it's been a string of five, six and seven-win campaigns that were never quite enough. And some really talented players went through the program during that time, never having any postseason ball to show for it.

Standout QB Fred Payton transferred to Mercer from Coastal Carolina in 2021 and wrote his name into the record books with 3,019 passing yards and 32 TDs during his senior season in 2022. Running back Tyray Devezin rushed for over 2,100 yards in four years with the program.

It never happened for any of those guys but this year's bunch? They are the right mix. Yes, there's certainly some All-Americans on both sides of the ball. The aforementioned Wise and receiver Ty James are two of the best in the country at what they do as is return specialist Devron Harper. But, largely, this isn't a roster full of household names.

Mercer v Auburn
Ty James has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Bears.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Quartberback Carter Peevy is perhaps the greatest example and is a perfect representation of what Mercer football is all about right now; patience paying off. Peevy was the team’s starter before Payton came in, but had to take a back seat last year. He only showed up in one game in 2022 and watched from the sidelines as Payton tore it up.

Now it’s his team again he’s made the most of his second opportunity, throwing for a career-high 2,087 yards and 11 touchdowns while leading the Bears offense which averages 241.7 yards of offense per outing.

In six days Peevy and company will line up opposite of Gardner-Webb on Saturday afternoon in the first round of the FCS playoffs. It's sure to be moment that Mercer, its players, its fans and its alum will soak in and remember for a good long while. It'll be a sight, after all, that many thought they may never see.

In a press conference last week, head coach Drew Cronic, banking on the fact that his team would be in despite not yet knowing, put it simply, "I think we're going to win some playoff games".

His team will at last have its chance to do just that.