It’s July, which means we’ll have actual football to talk about very soon! In anticipation of the coming season, our contributors got together to discuss some of the hot button issues surrounding the 2017 football season.
1. 2017 is such a strange year with the Flames’ ineligible for the Big South Championship and FCS playoffs as the team prepares for the FBS move, does 2017 even matter?
Chad Hasson: Of course it matters. The momentum gained or lost with this season can chart the path of on field success for the next 5-10 years. I think with all of the change in the Athletics Department, and in so many other drivers for our football program, fans and future recruits will want to see us take the next step. If we come out this season and lay an egg, when all they eyes are watching, it would be detrimental. Besides the momentum, there are schools including conference opponents that we likely will never see again. Each of them has given us a gut shot over the years. Most recently, we got blasted by CSU and did not qualify for the FCS playoffs. After the loss their DB coach, a Liberty grad, posted a video smashing LU labeled cinder blocks in the visiting locker room. This season is about momentum and revenge.
Duke Cuneo: Of course it matters. It matters for all of the guys that are working their butts off to earn playing time, it matters for starters trying to cement their roles on the team, and it matters for the coaching staff that are fighting for their jobs moving forward. For fans, it may be a bit more challenging to find meaning in this season. But remember, Liberty isn’t playing for a conference championship or a playoff bid for the foreseeable future. The only difference is the future possibility of a bowl game. So this is something to get used to.
Evan Nester: While I do think it’s a bummer we won’t be winning rings or trophies this season, that doesn’t lessen the importance of 2017 in any way. This season is the dress rehearsal for the big show. How Liberty performs and develops this season will have an impact on their inaugural FBS season. And I believe because of this move, the Flames will face greater criticism than they have seen before. Plenty of people outside of Lynchburg are looking for Liberty to fail at the journey that lies ahead and I think it is important to kill that narrative before it even gets started. A loss to Presbyterian before the FBS move would not bode well, in my opinion.
Jon Manson: It’s football. I love football, and I’m sure everyone of you reading this loves football. So, of course it matters. The “what” that matters is what is unique for 2017. Going undefeated in conference play doesn’t really matter. Getting enough quality wins to have a good at-large resume for the playoffs doesn’t matter. This program needs to continue to build positive momentum that it has received with the pending FBS move by winning games. So, yes it matters.
2. Given the uniqueness of the season, what are your expectations for the year?
CH: We realistically should go undefeated against Big South opponents. I really like our QB, and that is where the lofty expectations are coming from. It appears that everyone will play and not be red shirted, so I would expect us to win 8 games. I am also looking forward to seeing the game day experience under Ian’s regime.
DC: According to a former LU standout, under the current coaching staff this is a team that just hasn’t bought in, that they wouldn’t “run through a brick wall for Gill” so to speak. Given that in addition to the unique situation, it is difficult to know what to expect. However, I believe a lot hinges on the Indiana State game. If the Flames get embarrassed at home early in the season, I could really see them falling apart and mailing it in. That’s not to say they still won’t end up 6-5 or so, but that would certainly be disappointing. A nice win against the Sycamores (LU has struggled against the MVFC) and we could see 9-2 or 8-3.
EN: This is a difficult one to answer as there are a number of new variables to consider. The first thing is that the Flames will have a slight advantage over every team they face apart from Baylor: Scholarship amounts. Though we shouldn’t see the full impact of that until next season, it will be a slight plus. The next important piece to this puzzle is QB Buckshot Calvert. Now having a full year and offseason of training, it is time he shined at the position. And that is dependent upon the offensive line which is arguably the weakest position group of the upcoming season. This mixed with the number of transfers defensively, which hurts depth, and we could be in for a rough season. But considering the level of talent that is still on the team, the Flames SHOULD go either 8-3 and 7-4, their probable losses coming at the hands Baylor, Jacksonville State, and Indiana State (trap game). Charleston Southern could go either way though they have struggled against the Bucs in recent years. But I could easily see that dropping to 6-5 should they give up an easy win, something we know the Flames like to do.
JM: We need to start thinking like an FBS school. Games against FCS teams, particularly at home and regardless of the name of the opponent, are must wins. So, that’s 6 wins there. Monmouth and Gardner-Webb on the road are also must wins. Charleston Southern and Jacksonville State are top 15 teams that we face on the road, we won’t be seeing those types of games in the future, but a split could and should be expected. A respectable loss at Baylor should be expected as well. That puts us in the neighborhood of 8-3/9-2.
3. Plenty of storylines heading into the season opener against Baylor, how should we expect the team to fare against the Bears?
CH: Baylor has a ton of talent left from Briles’ time in Waco. If Liberty can keep it under 4 touchdowns and the story lines heading into the game are generous that would be sufficient. Worst case scenario, LU loses by 35 and a reporter gets some face time with our AD, and writes an incriminating story that is picked up by the national news.
DC: LU has done well not to get boat raced against P5 opponents over the past decade. That being said, Baylor may be trouble for the Flames. Liberty is going to be quite thin defensively, especially in the secondary. As we know, Big 12 teams can light up the scoreboard in a big way. I think this may be a very long 60 minutes for Liberty. The story won’t be whether or not LU’s defense can stop Baylor, but can Buckshot and his receivers show significant improvement? If the Flames can’t protect Calvert, this one gets ugly fast.
EN: Considering the circumstances, this game now carries more weight than it did almost a year ago. Not only is Liberty making the FBS jump, but they are doing it under the direction of former Baylor AD Ian McCaw. This is an important game for both squads because of a couple reasons. First for Baylor, no doubt they are looking to set the tone for their new head coach Matt Rhule and move past the dark events that unfolded this past year. As for Liberty, it would look mighty impressive to get a Power 5 win after announcing their FCS departure. I believe the Flames will compete with Baylor for part of the game. Any team with a new coach will have things to iron out and Liberty can take advantage of that (Similar to the 1st half of the Virginia Tech game). But following halftime, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Flames start to lose some steam (Similar to the 2nd half of the Virginia Tech game).
JM: Like I mentioned before, a respectable loss should be expected. What is respectable? Certainly within 3 touchdowns or so. Think back to the game at North Carolina a few years ago, that ended in a 27 point loss, but I remember walking out of that stadium feeling good about my team. We were losing 21-15 at the half and took a 22-21 lead early in the 3rd quarter before the wheels fell off. A similar result would be satisfactory, but what I’m looking most forward to is all the storylines. It’s a dream come true for a beat writer.
4. What storyline will you be following the most this season?
CH: Buckshot Calvert’s progression. He was very highly recruited, and took the starting job as a true freshman. From my perspective he did not end the season well, and did not look sharp in the spring game. I think he can break several passing records at LU, and lead this team to heights it has never seen. Will Buckshot dominate the way we all thought he would when he arrived ? The other story line I will follow is the coaching situation. I personally like coach Gill and think he has done a great job, however there has been some controversy, and the record is not stellar. Is he a place holder to help guide us through the transition, or can he turn it around and prove himself to be the man for the job going forward ?
DC: Has to be Gill Watch 2017. With this schedule, 6-5 just doesn’t cut it. Really, 7-4 shouldn’t either. There’s a new AD in town, and we don’t know how itchy his trigger finger is. Beyond wins and losses, how clean the program can stay this season will matter for Gill as well. Public disciplinary issues won’t help his case. Beyond all of that Buckshot Calvert’s development is probably the biggest story for the future of the Flames on the field. If he is the same or similar to what we saw last season (which was fine for a true Fresh), that will be a poor sign. I look for him to light it up though.
EN: One I am sure most people will be keeping an eye on: Turner Gill’s future. Will it take success for him to remain as the head coach for the Flames? Or does Ian McCaw already have another in mind to lead Liberty University into the FBS era?
JM: Coach Gill’s job status. It’s the elephant in the room that’s been hanging around the program the last year. Is he a lame duck? Does he get at least a year pass? Is a 9-2/10-1 record required to save his job?
5. Finally, give us one bold prediction for the 2017 football season.
CH: Liberty Special teams will have more returned kicks for TDs than the other years under Gill combined.
DC: Bold prediction? Liberty finally runs the Big South table when it no longer matters, frustrating Flames fans everywhere.
EN: Though they get no return, the Flames will sit atop the Big South at the end of the season. Their play will impact the conference in such a way that Charleston Southern will miss the playoffs and Kennesaw State will get the auto-bid.
JM: Tough to pick one. I’ll say we have an embarrassing loss to a Big South team, I’ll go with Monmouth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if any Big South team bit us.