Opponent: Mercer Bears
Date: September 5, 2020 (everything’s subject to change, duh)
All-time Series Record: Vanderbilt leads, 4-0
Last meeting: September 24, 1932. Vanderbilt won, 20-7.
Last year: 4-8, 210th in Sagarin.
Head coach: Drew Cronic (first year at Mercer; 47-6 overall, 4 years.)
Somehow, Vanderbilt’s season opener against Mercer will mark the first time since 2011 that the Commodores have faced an FCS team in the season opener.
Mercer is coming off a 2019 season in which the Bears went 4-8, scoring 323 points on offense (26.9 points per game — pretty good!) but allowing 425 points (35.4 ppg — not good!) The Bears lost 56-7 to North Carolina in their season finale, their only game last season against an FBS opponent.
Just going off the starters listed on the game notes for the North Carolina game last year, it looks like the Bears return six starters on offense (including four on the offensive line), and that’s not counting quarterback Robert Riddle, who led the team in passing last year but appears to have been lost at midseason. (Mercer also has Jake Fromm’s brother Dylan as a backup quarterback; Dylan Fromm redshirted last season.) They also return leading rusher Tyray Devezin. The Bears also bring back six starters on defense, though that was a weakness of the team in 2019.
Mercer doesn’t bring back its coach, though. The Bears parted ways with Bobby Lamb, who literally brought the program back from the dead (Mercer didn’t field a football team for 72 years, in case you were wondering why Vanderbilt’s last meeting with them came all the way back in 1932) after seven seasons and a 41-39 record. The new coach is Drew Cronic, who went 22-3 in two seasons at NAIA Reinhardt University (you knew I couldn’t resist a NAIA reference, didn’t you?) and, after a one-year stop as Furman’s offensive coordinator (where he’d also been an assistant from 2002-2010), went 25-3 in two years at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. In other words, Mercer just hired a guy with a 47-6 career record, and he’d taken over a Lenoir-Rhyne squad that went 3-8 the year before he was hired, then went 12-2 and 13-1 in two years. While his team site profile contains the usual puffery (“Cronic is considered one of the more innovative offensive minds across all levels of college football”), I have no reason to doubt that this guy is a good coach.
Still, taking a 4-8 team with a bad defense and competing with an SEC team (cough) right off the bat is going to be a big ask. There’s probably about a 99 percent chance that Vanderbilt wins this one, and in the best-case scenario, Vanderbilt has a quarterback who’s at least capable of carving up a mediocre FCS defense. (In the worst-case scenario, of course, this goes like the Charleston Southern game from 2014, with Vanderbilt barely surviving and the Anchor of Gold comments section openly calling for Drew Cronic to be hired in a similar manner to the Anchor of Gold comments section calling for Jamey Chadwell to be hired. But never mind that.) I guess this is a way of saying that Mercer is capable of telling us whether or not Vanderbilt is abjectly terrible, and maybe not even that — after all, the 2019 team beat ETSU 38-0, and that was a team that actually beat Mercer last season.