The 2014 edition of Liberty Flames football is finally here, and it’s Turner Gill’s 3rd season at the helm. After two seasons of Gillville, but no playoff appearances, I can’t help but wonder where we should set the bar of expectations for this year.
Turner Gill arrived with great fanfare after the 2011 season, but he also stepped into a program that had lost quite a bit of talent and production. It would be difficult to say the cupboard was bare, but the timing of Danny Rocco’s exit should not come as a surprise. With that said, some grace should have been extended to Gill for 2012’s occasional ugliness. Nevertheless, the Flames found themselves in the familiar position of being one win away from the FCS playoffs.
2013 brought higher expectations from many observers. The players had another year in Gill’s system, and the team came in with quite a bit of experience at most positions. Additionally, Stony Brook was out of the equation in the Big South, leaving Coastal Carolina as the only legitimate obstacle to the elusive FCS playoff appearance Liberty longed for. Obviously we all know the story, as the Flames dropped three heart breakers to find themselves on the outside looking in for the millionth time.
So where does that leave Gill’s team for 2014? The Flames lost some leadership to the NFL on the defensive side of the ball, as well as the entrenched starting running back Des Rice (injury). However, Liberty features more depth and experience on the offensive side of the ball than fans have seen in years. Josh Woodrum comes into his 3rd season as the lead signal caller with a talented offensive line. Woodrum will also have some great targets to pass to, with Darrin Peterson leading the way at wide receiver.
The schedule certainly doesn’t set up well for the Flames. With an out of conference slate that includes two FBS games (North Carolina, Appalachian State), one division II game (Brevard), and a tough homecoming match up against University of Richmond, an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs seems unlikely. That leaves the Big South automatic bid as the sole road to where Liberty has never been. To get there, Gill’s team will have to do what it hasn’t been able to do in quite some time; beat Coastal on their field. On top of that, Coastal comes into the season ranked #6 in the nation, and should 2014 go their way, the Chants should go into the final week comfortably inside the top five with an at-large bid secured.
After years of huge resources being dumped into the program, and years of being “FBS ready”, making the playoffs has to continue to be the expectation, even if history says it won’t happen this season. Throw out the three non-FCS games. If Liberty can go undefeated in FCS play going into the final week of the season, the Flames will be in legitimate contention for an at-large playoff bid, whether they get it or not. Whether we like it or not, given the way things are stacked up in 2014, that would have to be called a success.