Well. Here we are. Just 13 short weeks away from Hill City welcoming the sweet embrace of football season. That’s 13 weeks until we see the setting sun cover the Peaks of Otter while thousands of fans scream “FIRST DOWN!” 13 weeks away from fire-spitting guys, commentators delighting in Buckshot’s name, and anxious students being thrown in the air. 13 weeks from football pads popping, kickoff thunks, and ‘LU’ chants echoing throughout the mountains. Ahhhh yes, the 2017 Liberty football season is inching our way.
To prepare you for the coming season, over the next 11 weeks, we will preview the 11 teams Liberty will face during their transitional season. This includes 3 2016 FCS playoff teams, 1 FBS team, and 5 returning QBs in the Big South.
WEEK 1-September 2nd: @ Baylor (FBS)
Coach: Matt Rhule (1st year)
2016 Record: 7-6
The Flames start out their 2017 season against the Baylor Bears. This will be the highest profile team they have faced next to Virginia Tech and the second Big 12 team they have seen (West Virginia, 2015). No doubt this is the most anticipated match-up on the skid this year for most and one Liberty fans have had their eyes on for some.
But two monumental things have changed in the years since Liberty announced this trip to Texas, causing the game to weigh heavier than anyone could have expected.
First, one of the worst cover-ups in sports history was unearthed at Baylor. Everyone is well aware of the dark and terrifying rape accusations against players that the program staff attempted to sweep under the rug. This lead to a number of dismissals, including Art Briles and now Liberty AD, Ian McCaw. The Bears had a number of players from their 2016 recruiting class transfer and saw numerous 2017 commits back out. Looking to move forward from this sexual assault scandal, Matt Rhule was hired on as the new head coach at Baylor. It is difficult enough to manage recruiting the first year as a new coach, but Rhule comes in with relatively nothing. That does not mean the Bears will not be a force for the Flames. Rhule spent the past four seasons as the head coach at Temple where he brought the Owls out of the bottom of the AAC. He recorded back-to-back 10-win seasons and helped earn the school’s first conference title in 50 years. No doubt they are looking forward to building a new identity for the program under Rhule’s direction. Considering this, and the connection Baylor and Liberty now share through Ian McCaw, what looked to be a typical FBS-FCS dress rehearsal now draws the attention of many in the sports world.
And second, Liberty will soon be an FBS team. This is a statement game for both programs. Baylor looks to open up Rhule’s tenure in Texas with a win while the Flames wish to display their prominence on the FBS level. Criticism will be at an all-time high for the Flames. Should Liberty’s first win since announcing the FBS move come against a notable FBS squad, we very well could see a narrative shift take place as to what some believe Liberty has to offer outside of the FCS ranks.
The level of defensive talent QB Buckshot Calvert will see against Baylor is likely to be greater than that of which lies beyond the Bears this season. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see the expected progress he has made with a full year of experience and off-season work. How will he handle the speed of the offense? Can he cut down on the interceptions?
With RB Todd Macon sidelined until October, the Flames will need the help of JUCO transfer Kentory Matthews to bolster the run game. He joins the likes of Carrington Mosley and Frankie Hickson who accounted for a combined 1,146 rushing yards last season.
Liberty has been dealing with a number of departures from the program. During the off season, 3 defensive linemen, DeCarlo Hamilton, Will Brown, and Javon Frazier, transferred, leaving the line lacking depth. Going up against the likes of a Big 12 team without depth is a recipe for disaster.
How will the Flames handle the environment? Of course, Lane Stadium is notorious for is robust crowds and loud atmosphere. We saw the offensive line struggle mightily early on with false starts in that game. The team will need better composure in Waco to avoid 3rd and long situations.
Baylor Players to Watch:
Zach Smith (QB)-Smith is a 6’3 pocket passer with a beautiful deep ball.
Chris Platt (WR)-Poised to be their best receiver on the roster next season, Platt’s speed brings the ability to tear the top off of defenses.
K.J. Smith (DE)-As a junior, Smith spent plenty of time in the offensive backfield. He recorded 12 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. No doubt he will continue to cause trouble for opposing quarterbacks in the coming season.
Kickoff @ Baylor