ATLANTA — Move over University of Georgia Bulldogs and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. When the college football season kicks off this week, fans in the Peach State will have three new teams to follow.
Berry College in Rome, Mercer University in Macon and Reinhardt University in Waleska are all fielding teams this year. Mercer will be fielding a team for the first time since World War II, Reinhardt for the first time since the 1920s and Berry for the first time in school’s 111-year history.
The decision by Berry is particularly interesting considering a rumor persisted for years that the school’s founder, Martha Berry, stipulated in her will that football was never to be played at the school. However, according to school officials, Berry did not leave such instructions in her will, but in a 1925 letter did write, “football is not to be played at Berry.”
Still, school officials see the addition as a way to attract new students and increase its male student population. Officials also noted a campus development plan completed in 1937, five years before Berry died, included a football stadium, though it never came to fruition.
The Berry Vikings will compete in NCAA Division III’s Southern Athletic Association. The Mercer Bears will be competing in the NCAA Division I FCS’ Pioneer Football League while the Reinhardt Eagles will join the NAIA’s Mid-South Conference.
Mercer and Reinhardt face off Friday in Macon to start their seasons, and Berry and Mercer will battle in Macon on Sept. 21. Berry is planning to build a football stadium on campus while Mercer and Reinhardt will open stadiums this year.
While Mercer’s season kicks off with four consecutive home games, the Bears will make a cross-country trip to take on the University of San Diego on Oct. 5.
Reinhardt’s schedule is no cakewalk. The Eagles face four teams ranked in the NAIA Preseason Top 25 poll — No. 9 Bethel on Sept. 28, No. 21 Belhaven on Oct. 19, No. 8 University of the Cumberlands on Oct. 26 and No. 25 Cumberland University on Nov. 9.
Students and alumni of all three schools are buzzing about the start of football on all three campuses. Tickets for Mercer’s season opener sold out in 27 minutes, and according to Georgia Public Broadcasting, the school has sold about 5,000 season tickets for a stadium with a seating capacity of 10,200.
Mercer is planning to move to the Southern Conference in 2014 and will battle Georgia Tech in Atlanta to start the 2016 season. The teams haven’t played since 1915.
In 1892, the Bears beat Tech during Tech’s first ever football game, defeating the Yellow Jackets by a 12-6 score. Success for Mercer was brief, however, as Georgia Tech leads the series by a 12-1-1 margin.
“The state of Georgia has been underpopulated with universities playing football for a long, long time, and we’re finally catching up,” the Effingham Herald quoted Mercer coach Bobby Lamb as saying earlier this month. “We’re keeping up where these young men can stay at home, and they can play at all levels of football.”
Another Georgia school, Kennesaw State University, will field a football team for the 2015 season.