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Alabama vs. Mercer Preview: When the Bears have the ball

Alabama is set to take on the Spread Wing offense of the Mercer Bears.

NCAA Football: Mercer at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The upcoming game against the Mercer Bears marks Alabama’s first non-Power 5 matchup since the Tide defeated Western Carolina on November 23rd, 2019. On one hand, it was kind of nice to not have any of these small-school matchups that are inevitably blowouts (although Alabama treated many SEC opponents much the same in 2020), but on the other, it will be nice to see the Tide have a chance to get many of the backups significant playing time by the 2nd half.

The Mercer Bears didn’t play football from 1941 until 2013, when they reinstated their program and won 10 games in the Pioneer conference of the FCS. They were immediately pushed to the Southern conference (a traditionally more powerful group within the FCS), and have consistently won 5 or 6 games every year since.

They opened up the 2021 season by absolutely obliteration the Point University Skyhawks 69-0. Point has won a grand total of 12 games since 2016, a single game in 2020, and was about as far below Mercer as Mercer is to Alabama in terms of talent.

The Bears scored about 25 points per game in 2020-2021, and did so with a staggering 2:1 run-pass ratio. Their spread wing offense features a QB that can run, a big running back, and a “joker”, who’s more of a small scat back who comes in motion across the line of scrimmage all the time.

QB Carter Peevy was his conference’s freshman of the year last spring as he passed for 1300 yards and added another 300 on the ground. Senior RB Nakendrick Clark returns after averaging 3.8 yards per carry last season.

On the edges, Brandon Marshall returns from averaging 4.5 yards per carry, but freshman Tommy Pollack was the breakout star of the season opener, taking 13 carries for 111 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

As a team, they rushed for a ridiculous 539 yards and 7 touchdowns on 51 attempts while adding another 239 yards through the air. The team’s two leading receivers from last season, Ty James and Ethan Dirrim both return. James is a more traditional receiver, while Dirrim is more of a receiving option as a Joker back.

This will be one of the more unique matchups for the Alabama defense this season, and will really test the linebacker’s ability to chase plays from sideline-to-sideline. The corners will also have to balance containing all of those sweeps in run support while also not getting beat over the top by getting sucked in with all the spread-wing option eye candy.

While the Bears have had a generally successful rushing offense the past few years and absolutely destroyed Point last week, their passing game is inconsistent at best. It operates mostly as a constraint to occasionally hit a play when the defense is keying in on certain rush looks, and the Bears can’t rely on it to convert on passing downs.

I imagine they’ll have a few sustained drives against Alabama— particularly in the 2nd half— that will serve to make Saban irate for the next week. Other than that, though, they’re still an FCS squad. I’ll be surprised if they make it to double digits.