Mercer's RB runs against ETSU's defense
Source: Mercer Athletics
FCS

Mercer at Chattanooga Preview and Prediction

No. 11 Mercer (6-1, 4-0 SoCon) at No. 10 Chattanooga (5-1, 3-0 SoCon) in what could be the SoCon Championship defining game

John Hooper
John Hooper

When and Where: Oct. 22, 2022, Finley Stadium, Chattanooga, TN 1:30 p.m. EST

Coaches: Mercer-Drew Cronic (18-10, 3rd year at Mercer), Chattanooga-Rusty Wright ( 20-14, 4th yr at Chattanooga)

Series: 33rd meeting — Chattanooga leads 20-11-1

Game Preview

It’s arguably the game of the year in the Southern Conference—at least up until this point—as Chattanooga hosts Mercer in a battle of SoCon unbeatens at Finley Saturday afternoon. The Mocs were the team to beat coming into the season, according to the league’s coaches and media. Chattanooga hasn’t disappointed so far, with a 5-1 start to the season with the only loss coming on the road on a Thursday night against No. 18 Illinois, as the Illini ended up blanking the Mocs, 31-0, in Champaign. Like Chattanooga, Mercer enters Saturday’s contest with its lone loss to this point in 2022 coming against FBS power five competition, having dropped a 42-16 contest to SEC West member Auburn earlier this season.

The Bears came into the season with high hopes for obvious reasons, as the Bears just missed out on the postseason in 2021, with a 38-35 loss in the Volunteer State against East Tennessee State in what was the de facto Southern Conference championship game. Only the Bucs received an invitation to the FCS postseason as a result. Mercer scheduled only 10 games with a non-Division I win, and that playoff miss came despite having a team that was likely worthy to be playing in the postseason.

On Saturday, the SoCon takes center stage once again, with two teams looking to prove to a national media of doubters that the SoCon is back. With four legitimate contenders for the league crown this season, Saturday’s matchup offers the nation a chance to see the two best to this point at least.

While Tennessee’s 52-49 win over Alabama was the biggest game in the Volunteer State last week, the game between the Mocs and Bears is arguably the biggest game in the state of Tennessee this Saturday. The eyes of the FCS nation will be on the league Saturday. Both teams have gotten off to a dominant start to conference play. The Bears sport an average margin of victory in conference play of 29.2 PPG so far this season, while the Mocs have won their three league contests by an average of 22.3 PPG.

Mercer has won the past two meetings in the series, including winning what was a wild 10-6 contest last season, which was a game that featured five Mocs turnovers, two missed field goals, and a very important, yet accidental onsides kick by the Bears, which all but sealed the four-point win in Macon. Since joining the Southern Conference, the Bears have claimed five out of the eight meetings between the two.

Part of the reason both teams find themselves in a situation to win a Southern Conference title is the fact that both teams have quality quarterback play. The Mocs are being led by Eastern Michigan transfer Preston Hutchinson (92-of-154 passing, 1,317 yds, 8 TDs, 5 INTs), while Mercer is being led this season by Fred Payton (122-of-182 passing, 1,816 yds, 21 TDs, 1 INT).

Payton has really raised some eyebrows around FCS football this season by tossing 21 TDs and throwing just one INT. He’s having a remarkable season to this point for the Bears. He is currently ranked third nationally in passing efficiency, sporting an impressive 187.3 rating through the first seven games for the Bears this season.

Both Hutchinson and Payton have some of the top big-play weapons surrounding them at the skill positions, beginning in each team’s backfield. For the Mocs, they are being led by running back Ailym Ford (128 rush att, 700 yds, 7 TDs, 5.5 YPC), who currently ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards this season.

Mercer is being led at running back by Austin Douglas (58 rush att, 403 yds, 5 TDs, 6.9 YPC/7 rec, 74 yds, 1 TD, 10.5 YPR). The James Madison transfer has done an outstanding job of making Mercer’s offense one of the most balanced offenses in all of FCS football, anchoring the ground game.

Douglas isn’t the only weapon that the Bears have at their disposal in the ground attack. Al Wooten II (89 rush att, 346 yds, 2 TDs, 3.9 YPC) and Brandon Marshall (22 rush att, 224 yds, 2 TDs, 10.2 YPC) offer a couple of more threats in the ground attack, while Devron Harper (40 rec, 507 yds, 8 TDs, 12.7 YPR) is an x-factor type player that can hurt opposing defenses with his speed in both the Mercer ground attack, as well as the passing game.

It could be argued that Marshall made some game-winning plays in Mercer’s 55-33 win over East Tennessee State last weekend, as he helped break open what was a close game with a key 40-yard grab in the fourth quarter. He finished the contest against the Bucs with three catches for 110 yards, while rushing the ball six times for another 67 yards.

Harper offers a threat as both a big-play wide receiver, averaging 12.7 yards-per-reception this season, as well as having eight touchdown grabs. As a rushing threat, Harper has 159 yards and four scores on only 12 attempts this season, averaging a whopping 12.6 yards-per-carry.

The final big-play threat in the Mercer offense is a player I think might have been one of the most underrated offensive weapons in the Southern Conference coming into the season, and that is wide receiver and University of Georgia transfer Ty James (27 rec, 577 yds, 7 TDs, 21.4 YPR). James ranks second in the SoCon and 11th nationally in yards-per-catch, averaging a whopping 21.4 yards-per-catch through the first seven games this season.

Ford has been a bruiser throughout his Mocs career running the football for the Mocs, and ranks seventh nationally in yards rushing per game, averaging 116.7 YPG through six games this season for UTC. Ford has 2,944 career rushing yards, and with 53 yards rushing against the Bears Saturday, he will move into fifth place in program rushing yards, surpassing former Mocs standout Derrick Craine, who finished his career with 2,997 rushing yards in 2016.

Ford’s complement in the backfield last year was Tyrell Price. This year, Price’s role has been filled nicely by Gino Appleberry (47 rush att, 282 yds, 2 TDs, 6.0 YPC), who has given the Mocs a nice one-two punch in the backfield this season. In last week’s win over VMI, Appleberry rushed for 109 yards and a pair of scores to go alongside Ford’s 174 yards and one TD. Like Marshall for Mercer, the x-factor offensively for the Mocs Saturday is likely Appleberry.

As far as threats in the passing attack for the Mocs are concerned, look no further than the trio of Jamoi Mayes (19 rec, 237 yds, 2 TDs, 12.5 YPR), Sam Phillips (15 rec, 253 yds, 0 TD, 16.9 YPR) and Javin Whatley (14 rec, 259 yds, 2 TDs, 18.5 YPR). Whatley is Chattanooga’s version of Ty James. He has the type of speed that the Bears’ talented secondary will have to be wary of at all times Saturday. Both of Whatley’s TDs have come from better than 50 yards out this season, as he has a 51-yard scoring catch against Eastern Illinois and just last weekend, hauled in a career-long 72-yard scoring pass in the 41-13 win over VMI.

Both Whatley and Phillips are redshirt freshmen, and eight of the team’s 14 receivers are newcomers this season. It’s been a position group that was a question mark entering the season, and they have collectively answered the bell emphatically to this point in the season. Drake Starks (9 rec, 106 yds, 4 TDs, 11.8 YPR) and Jay Gibson (10 rec, 99 yds, 9.9 YPR) are reliable receiving threats at tight end for both schools. Starks ranks third on the team in scoring catches this season, as he combines with Harper and James to account for 19 of the team’s 22 scoring catches so far this season.

Gibson has combined with South Carolina transfer Keshawn Toney (5 rec, 55 yds, 11.0 YPR) at the position, giving the Mocs two viable downfield threats in the passing game. Both Gibson and Toney are still looking to haul in their first TD pass from a Mocs quarterback this season.

One of the slight advantages I see that the Bears will have in this matchup is the offensive line. The Bears will need it in this matchup, facing what I think is one of the best defensive lines in the country, as the Mocs have been stout all season against the run, ranking 11th nationally in rushing defense (90.0 YPG).

Leading the Bears offensive front this season have been veteran tackles John Thomas (LT) and Nate Howard (RT), while Riley Adcock has been solid at center all season for the Bears. Thomas is one of the most talented offensive linemen in the SoCon and is a candidate for the league’s prestigious Jacobs Blocking Award.

The trio mentioned above is part of an OL unit that has helped Mercer boast one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, as the Bears come into the contest ranking 10th nationally in total offense (467.9 YPG) and sixth nationally in scoring offense (41.0 PPG). The Bears have also surrendered just five sacks through seven games this season, which leads the SoCon. They will be challenged by a Mocs defense that has recorded 22 quarterback takedowns this season in just six games.

Chattanooga’s offensive front is led by another of the league’s top offensive lineman, in left tackle McClendon Curtis, who joined Colin Truett as one of only two starters returning up front coming into the season. The most notable loss to the unit was of course Cole Strange, who became the highest NFL Draft pick from the SoCon since 1974 last spring.

With Truett likely suffering a season-ending injury in the 24-16 win at ETSU earlier this season, it leaves Curtis as the lone returning starter remaining off of last season’s talented OL unit. Curtis and the rebuilt Mocs OL has been solid nonetheless, helping the Mocs rank 39th in scoring offense (29.2 PPG), 38th in total offense (399.2 YPG), and 30th in rushing offense (177.5 YPG).

The Mocs rank second to only Mercer in the SoCon in sacks surrendered, having given up just 10 quarterback takedowns in the first six games this season.

Over the past decade-plus, the Mocs football program has had a perennially stout defense both in the SoCon and nationally. The 2022 season has seen Chattanooga put out yet another defense that is as good as any in the nation at all three levels.

It all starts up front for the Mocs, which is multiple, but mostly a base scheme of a 4-2-5, utilizing the unique advantages that defensive ends Devonnsha Maxwell (19 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 QBHs) and Ben Brewton (13 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 6 QBHs, 2 FF, 1 FR) give the Mocs up front.

While Maxwell usually requires a double-team on one side of that defensive line, it frees up both Brewton and edge rusher/outside linebacker Jay Person (25 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 4 QBH) to come free at the quarterback. Person’s 6.5 sacks lead the SoCon, and ranks tied for fifth nationally. He is a part of the latest Buck Buchanan Award Watch list put out by FCS STATS Perform earlier this week.

Maxwell is likely the best defensive player the Bears offensive front has faced this season—Auburn included. Maxwell is approaching a Southern Conference record for career sacks. He ranks second nationally in active career sacks (34.0 sacks). With three more sacks, Maxwell will tie both the school and conference records for career sacks, joining Davis Tull.

The heartbeat of the Chattanooga defense this season has been weakside linebacker Ty Boeck (44 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 QBH, 1 FR), who had an 85-yard INT return to set up a score against the Bears last season and has a punt return for 12 yards for a score this season in the win over North Alabama, is having a season worthy of All-America consideration.

The secondary is the one unit that had some question marks this season, with just one starter returning. The Mocs have held serve this season in the secondary. While the Mocs haven’t had the success that they enjoyed last season, which included playing a large role in 15 INTs last season, but Chattanooga has been decent against the pass this season, ranking 31st nationally in pass defense (195.8 YPG) this season.

The Mocs have some talent in their secondary, however, CaMiron Smith (22 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 PBU) was a preseason All-SoCon pick and was the most experienced returnee in the Mocs’ secondary. He is the lone senior among two freshmen, one sophomore and one junior in the secondary.

The two freshmen starters in the Mocs secondary both start at safety for the Mocs, in strong safety Jordan Walker (14 tackles, 0.5 TFL) and free safety Josh Battle (20 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU), while Reuben Lowery III (27 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 2 PBUs) will start at rover and returned an INT 45 yards for a score in the Mocs season and SoCon opening win over Wofford.

Kam Brown (14 tackles, 2 INTs, 1.0 TFL, 5 PBUs), a junior, teams with Smith as the other starting cornerback.

Chattanooga is 4-0 this season when its secondary has posted an INT, and as a defense this season, the Mocs have picked off a total of 16 PBUs and picked off four passes this season.

Mercer’s defense might not have been as dominant over this season, but they are athletic and talented, nonetheless. The Bears come into Saturday afternoon’s SoCon monumental showdown ranking 11th nationally in total defense (291.0 YPG). In addition, the Bears also rank 12th in scoring defense (16.4 PPG), and rank 20th overall against the run this season, allowing just 109.6 YPG on the ground. Mercer’s 15 INTs this season lead both the SoCon and all of FCS football.

Like the Mocs, the Bears are multiple on the defensive side of the football but are mostly a 4-2-5 alignment. Also, like Chattanooga, the front seven is one of the top units in all of FCS football, and though the Bears don’t have the tackles-for-loss and sacks numbers that the Mocs have coming into the matchup, the numbers they have put up this season are impressive. The Bears have been led up front by preseason All-SoCon pick Solomon Zubairu (24 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 QBH) and Savio Frazier (26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR), who was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last season.

Helping compliment those two is redshirt sophomore Chris Hill (14 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 QBH), while Christian Hanson (23 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 QBHs) serves as the edge rusher/outside linebacker, serving in much the same role for the Mercer defense as Jay Person does for the Chattanooga defense. The Bears defensive line might not be as intimidating up front as the one the Mocs will feature Saturday, however, they are every bit as athletic along the defensive front.

The Bears are led at linebacker by Buck Buchanan Award candidate Isaac Dowling (47 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 1 FF). Dowling picked off two passes in a Southern Conference win over Western Carolina a couple of weeks ago, garnering SoCon Defensive Player of the Week accolades in the process. Dowling teams with Ken Standley (34 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF) to solidify the middle of the Bears defense. Standley offers experience and veteran leadership.

Rounding out the Bears defense is a secondary that has arguably been as good as any in FCS football this season. Lance Wise (26 tackles, 1.5 TFL,1 INT, 1 PBU) is the veteran leader of the unit. The preseason STATS Perform All-America selection will be making his 41st appearance as a part of the Bears defense in his career on Saturday, and perhaps his most important.

Teaming with Wise as a part of the Bears secondary Saturday will be free safety Myles Redding (30 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU) and ‘bandit’ linebacker/safety Richie Coffey (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 QBHs).

Redding is a sophomore and has been a fixture in the Bears defense each of the past two seasons, while Coffey, likewise, has been a veteran leader for this Mercer defense ever since Drew Cronic arrived as head coach. In fact, Coffey was part of the previous staff’s recruiting haul, which has proven especially beneficial to the current staff. Coffey is one of the unheralded leaders of this Bears defense.

Set to start at the two cornerback positions are TJ Moore (20 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 1 QBH) and Michael Campbell (30 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 PBUs), with Moore pacing the unit with three INTs this season. Corner is one of the deepest positions on the Bears defensive depth chart, with both Cam Sims (15 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 PBU) and Corey Barnes (2 tackles, 2 PBUs) also capable understudies at those respective positions.

Noting Last Year’s Game: Mercer 10, No. 19 Chattanooga 6

In what was one of the lowest scoring games of the 2021 Southern Conference football season, the matchup between Mercer and Chattanooga also produced one of the wildest finishes, with Mercer forcing five Chattanooga turnovers, and weathering a couple of missed field goals, while recovering one very important on-sides kick to secure a win that would set up a chance to win a Southern Conference title and make a first-ever FCS playoff appearance as a result the following week at East Tennessee State. The only two offensive scores came in the second quarter of last season’s contest, with Ailym Ford scoring on a 10-yard scoring run for the Mocs, while Drake Starks hauled in a 4-yard scoring pass from quarterback Fred Payton later in the game. The Mocs had a sizable advantage in total offense in the contest, out-gaining the Bears by 122 yards, as UTC held a 285-163 advantage in total offense.

Who Wins

This is a game I expect to go a lot like it did last year in that it will once again be a low-scoring game, as a game with two good offenses and two good defensive units always seems to go more towards being a game dominated by the defensive side of the football. Ordinarily, you’d think that would favor a team like Chattanooga, which has seemingly patented that as a way to win a football game over the years. However, not this season, as I think the Bears are slightly more talented, and the Bears make enough plays offensively on the road to hold on for the win.

Prediction: Mercer 20, Chattanooga 17