It’s July, which means we’ll have actual football to talk about next month (if you count practice). In anticipation of the coming season, our contributors got together to discuss some of the hot button issues surrounding the 2016 football season.
1. What are your expectations for this season?
Jon Manson: Since the end of the 2015 season, the discussion around the 2016 version of the Flames has centered on all the talent that has been lost. Yes, that’s true, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. While the nonconference schedule is certainly challenging, Liberty should again compete for the Big South championship and automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. An overall mark of 8-3 is attainable and would get the Flames into the playoffs either as an at-large or as conference champs.
Duke Cuneo: I think it is really important to have reasonable expectations going into this thing. Even if this team were super experienced, this would be a very tough schedule. The fact is, though, that the Flames have a new offensive system, a new starting QB, a new #1 WR, a new #1 RB, just to name a few big changes. On the defensive side of the ball, Chima is gone, and Wes Scott is out for the season.
With that being said, there is a ton of returning and new talent on this roster. The question is, how fast can they and this coaching staff put it all together? By scheduling two FBS teams and some very tough FCS programs, Liberty has a very narrow window to make the FCS Playoffs. The most likely scenario I see is the season finale against Coastal being make or break for the Flames getting to the all important 7 win mark. We know Coach Gill and his team can win big games, but can they win the not so big games that defined them last season?
Colton Pomeroy: A tough out of conference schedule could quickly eliminate any chance of an “at-large” bid to the FCS Playoffs. Hopefully this tough slate of games will prepare the Flames for conference play. The conference schedule seems favorable with traditionally easier matchups coming first before playing Charleston Southern and Coastal to conclude regular season play. With no room for error in conference play, it seems likely that the Flames will miss out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Evan Nester: My expectations aren’t quite where they were at last year, but I still expect big things from this team and believe they have a place in the playoffs. I am confident in our defense. Even with the loss of DE Chima Uzowihe, our defensive line is still one of the stronger position groups on the team. The secondary, while still young, showed great flashes of talent last season and I expect that to improve this season. My hesitancy lies in the offense. With the loss of a veteran QB, two starting RBs, and a star WR, there are a number of holes to fill. I do believe there will be growing pains, as new starters take their positions and the team works toward a stronger unity, but eventually this team will find their groove and win games.
2. How should we expect the team to fare in the Virginia Tech game?
JM: “I expect to go into Blacksburg and give them all they want.” That’s what AD Jeff Barber said. The game against the Hokies will be the highest profile game Liberty has ever played in. In each of the past 2 seasons, the Flames have faced a power 5 school (North Carolina, West Virginia) with both games being lopsided final margins. If Frank Beamer was still roaming the sidelines, I’d say Liberty would keep it close. With a new coach and VT wanting to “show out” for him in his first game, it’s hard to envision a close margin.
DC: It’s tough to tell. If this were a VA Tech team led by Frank Beamer, I would actually feel like Liberty had a good shot to go into Blacksburg and compete. With a new regime pumping out a wide open offense, I just don’t know what to expect from the Hokies. They will certainly be motivated and I expect them to want to come out and impress their new coach. Lane Stadium can be one of the toughest places to play at any level of football, and as I stated earlier, the Flames are very young at key positions. If Liberty can get out of there without any injuries, I will be satisfied.
CP: Virginia Tech is coming off a win in the Independence Bowl and will be playing their first game under new head coach Justin Fuente. The game will also be a dress rehearsal for the game against Tennessee at Bristol the following week. Expect the Hokies to come focused and ready to play. Liberty tends to play up to better competition, but Liberty has yet to defeat an ACC opponent.
EN: I’ve grown up watching the Hokies, not because I’m a fan, but because I’m from “Hokie Country.” Frank Beamer himself is from my county and played football at my high school. Most people I come in contact with love Virginia Tech and their games are always on TV. With the departure of Beamer and arrival of new head coach Justin Fuente, great changes will come to the team, which might work to the advantage of Liberty as it will be their game in which these changes are first put into play. In order for Liberty to win, they will have to take advantage of every mistake VT makes and make no mistakes themselves. If they play them as well as they played UNC in 2014 (without the 3rd quarter malfunction), it is very feasible that they can win. Apart from this, the run game has to be a viable part of the offense. The last thing we want is Liberty constantly throwing into VT’s infamous secondary. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them start well, as they often do, but how they finish is what I question. The fact is, Virginia Tech will have bigger and faster guys. This game will be a great test of will and want. Depending on how bad these guys want this win will determine what to truly expect.
3. The Flames have put together an impressive 2016 schedule that includes 2 FBS teams and 3 top 10 FCS teams. What game are you most looking forward to?
JM: There’s so many to choose from, from the showdown with the Hokies to perhaps the final meeting with Coastal. The home game against last year’s national runner-up Jacksonville State has to be at the top of the list.
DC: With so many big names on the schedule, it may surprise folks that I am most looking forward to Charleston Southern. It is the one game that is most likely to decide the fate of the Flames’ season. I think it will also tell a lot about the direction of this league and even our program. Are the Bucs really the Big South’s new top dog? Or have the past couple of seasons been some sort of aberration? Is Liberty ready to become what by nearly all accounts they should be, which is the dominant program in this conference? A lot will be answered on November 12.
CP: I personally look forward to travelling to Dallas to watch the Flames play SMU. I have friends and family in the area, so I have no trouble justifying the 18 hour drive from Lynchburg. On top of that, SMU could be one of the more winnable games in the non-conference schedule.
EN: While I am thrilled for the two FBS games Liberty will play this year and the Coastal game is always a classic, I’m most excited for the Jacksonville State game. To go up against a team that has made the playoffs the last three years and almost brought home the national championship last year is a great opportunity for this team. If they win, it would be a great confidence booster and say much about this team. And should the game be anything like the Montana game last year, it will be a great atmosphere
4. If the team under-performs this season and does not make the playoffs, is Coach Gill’s job in jeopardy?
JM: It’s so difficult to predict something like that without actually going through the season and knowing all the details of the season. If the Flames finish 7-4 and lose a tie-breaker for the Big South’s auto-bid and don’t make the playoffs, I don’t see anything happening to Gill. However, if Liberty repeats with another 6-5 record, or worse, with a loss or two to a “lesser” opponent (like Monmouth & G-W last year) sprinkled in, then he will definitely have some pressure on him. I still don’t see him getting fired in that scenario, but it would make 2017 a make or break year.
DC: So are we saying then that not making the playoffs means they under performed? I’m not sure I would agree with that in this case. Like last season, if the Flames go 6-5 and don’t make it in, I think it will be more about how they got to 6-5 than the fact that they failed to get to the playoffs for the second straight season. If Liberty loses to VA Tech, SMU, Jax State, Charleston Southern, and Coastal, will anyone REALLY be surprised based on the Flames’ roster situation? Despite the disappointment that would be associated with such results, I’m not sure that should put Gill’s job in jeopardy. On the other hand, if Liberty pulls off a big win or two and then tanks against bad teams like last season, I will be at the front of the line calling for him to be dumped.
CP: I don’t believe so, no. Liberty will likely need to beat Charleston Southern to make the playoffs. This is assuming that Liberty is able to take care of business against the rest of the conference. No one would fault Gill for failing to win that one game. Another loss against a Monmouth or a Gardner Webb would be a different story.
EN: I hate to say it, but yes. Considering the talent that Coach Gill had last year, it is perplexing that the team only won 6 games. This roster this season is just as full with talent and if it isn’t utilized, I believe some changes need to be made.
5. Finally, give us one bold prediction for the 2016 football season.
JM: Stephon Masha is the Big South’s Offensive player of the year.
DC: Bold prediction? We finish the season with a different starting QB than we begin it with.
CP: Damian King will emerge as one of the top kick returners in FCS!
EN: Stephon Masha will lead the team in passing…and rushing. He’ll throw from over 2500 yards and rush for over 1000. He’ll account for at least 30 touchdowns. 17 through the air and 13 on the ground.