We have looked at eight teams Liberty football will face in the 2016 season, leaving us with three more to round out the 11-game skid. The top three teams look to be the biggest games of the year for the Flames and could serve as defining moments for the program should they come out of those match-ups with wins. One team was the runner-up for the FCS championship last year. The next team will be what stands in between the Flames and a FCS playoff appearance, should the Big South play out like it looks to. And the third game will be the biggest Liberty has ever been apart of.
#3 on the countdown is Jacksonville State.
Not to be confused with the Jacksonville Dolphins (which the Flames see earlier in the season), Jacksonville State, located in Jacksonville, Alabama, plays at the FCS level and is apart of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Gamecocks have been a dominate team over the past few seasons, going 16-0 in conference play and 23-4 overall since 2014. They have also made an appearance in the FCS playoffs 4 times since 2010, last year being their most successful. Jacksonville State made their way through three teams, one being a familiar force in Charleston Southern, to reach the FCS championship for the first time in program history. There they met FCS juggernaut North Dakota State only to come up short of a title.
For the third year in a row, the Gamecocks serve as the favorite to win the OVC and this comes despite a number of senior losses to their team. They bring back six starters on offense and just three on defense. This offense averaged 39 points and 508 yards a game thanks in part to a stellar run attack last season. On average, they put up 300 yards rushing each game and 53 rushing touchdowns on the year. Starting RB Troymaine Pope lead the team in rushing with 1,814 yards and dual-threat QB Eli Jenkins followed that up with 1,348 yards. Pope is one of the most notable losses for the team as he is now with the Seattle Seahawks.
Defensively, the Gamecocks led the OVC in a number of categories last season as well. They held opposing offenses to 20 points and 300 total yards a game. Apart from this, they led the conference in sacks and interceptions. It is not hard to argue they had the best defense in the conference. But as it was mentioned earlier, this conference-best defense returns just three starters, leaving the line and and secondary with big shoes to be filled.
Jacksonville State has picked up a number of FBS transfers during the offseason: RB Roc Thomas (Auburn), WR Krenwick Sanders (Wisconsin) & Kevin Spears (LSU), OL Darius Anderson (East Carolina), DE Justin Thomas-Thornton (Auburn) and CB Al Harris Jr. (South Carolina). Of these transfers, the most notable would have to be Roc Thomas and Justin Thomas-Thornton, who are both poised to make an immediate impact on the team. While the Gamecocks have suffered a number of losses, it looks as though many of those holes are being filled.
This looks to be the biggest team Liberty has ever hosted in Williams Stadium and frankly, this is poised to be one of the most exciting teams the Flames see this season. Considering the type of team Jacksonville State is and the potential this game has, this match-up is clearly a top-3 one. If you can only see Liberty play one game this season, let it be this one.
Some other things to keep in mind:
Liberty tends to play well with the power of the crowd behind them. Having the Gamecocks come to Lynchburg is a big advantage.
The Flames have struggled with dual-threat QBs. Considering QB Eli Jenkins is at the helm, there is no doubt they will get a heavy dose of his running skill.
Jacksonville State almost pulled off one of the biggest FCS-FBS upsets ever last season. It took overtime for nationally ranked Auburn to take down the Gamecocks.
Players to watch:
QB Eli Jenkins-Jenkins is a dual-threat QB with lots of experience. He led the team in passing and ranked second in rushing last year.
WR Josh Barge-Being one of Jenkins’ favorite weapons last season, Barge racked up 1,145 receiving. The chemistry these two share will be worth watching.
DE Darius Jackson-This junior defensive end had seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season.
Jacksonville State Game