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No conference, no long-term goals, no matter — Liberty’s an FBS team now

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Turner Gill makes his return to the FBS ranks with a team that should be able to pass and defend the pass. (Just don’t ask about the ground games.)

NCAA Football: Liberty at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

After falling behind late in the third quarter in Waco last September, Liberty took a 34-31 lead on Baylor with a 13-yard pass from Stephen Calvert to Antonio Gandy-Golden. After a Baylor three-and-out, the Flames drove 44 yards for another score; Baylor responded with a touchdown, but a 26-yard strike from Calvert to Spencer Jones all but iced the game with 6:12 remaining.

Baylor responded with another quick touchdown, but Liberty ate up most of the remaining clock, and safety Brandon Tillmon intercepted a Hail Mary attempt on the game’s final play. Liberty scored a 48-45 upset to start the 2017 season, and head coach Turner Gill had as many Big 12 wins as Liberty head coach as he did in two years as Kansas head coach.

For casual football fans, Gill’s legacy consists of basically three items:

  1. He was one of Nebraska’s greatest QBs, leading the Huskers to a 28-2 record as a starter from 1981-83 and piloting the dominant 1983 team that fell a last-second Orange Bowl loss short of a national title.
  2. He won a surprising MAC title at Buffalo in 2008.
  3. He bombed at Kansas in 2010-11. (Though in retrospect, going 3-9 at KU isn’t anything to scoff at.)

He’s about to add a fourth line to that list: piloting Liberty to FBS. Just over six months before the win over Baylor, the school announced the surprising move.

What he can accomplish at a school with no real conference affiliation, TV deal, or title aspirations remains to be seen. The nation’s largest private university (thanks mostly to distance learners), Liberty offered major money to Conference USA and the Sun Belt to join but got rebuffed. School president Jerry Falwell Jr., who has no problem inviting controversy — he did, after all, hire former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw barely six months after McCaw resigned in disgrace as part of the BU football program’s sexual assault scandal* — claimed the school was being held back because of its open religious views and conservatism.

The conferences disagreed, but LU made the jump all the same. And it is spending money like an FBS program should.

Goals aside, the program has a decent amount to offer. The facilities are getting upgrades, Lynchburg is near a solid number of FBS-caliber recruits, and Gill is a steady hand. He hasn’t matched his initial success, going 6-5 for three straight seasons after a 23-10 run from mid-2012 through 2014, but the Flames don’t enter FBS as a surefire last-place squad.

Liberty under Turner Gill

Year Record Sagarin Rk. FBS teams below them Games vs. current FBS teams
Year Record Sagarin Rk. FBS teams below them Games vs. current FBS teams
2017 6-5 182 5 at Baylor (W, 48-45)
2016 6-5 150 13 at VT (L, 13-36), at SMU (L, 14-29), at CCU (L, 7-42)
2015 6-5 159 11 at WVU (L, 17-41), CCU (W, 24-21)
2014 9-5 103 40 at UNC (L, 29-56), at App. St. (W, 55-48), at CCU (W, 15-14)
2013 8-4 116 30 at Kent St. (L, 10-17), CCU (L, 52-55)
2012 6-5 187 0 at WF (L, 17-20), at CCU (L, 12-36)

Gill’s last awesome team, the 2014 edition, beat current Sun Belt members Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina — the Chanticleers were No. 1 in FCS at the time — and then the Flames beat CCU again in 2015.

At their best, they’ve been a prolific unit, rarely boasting a tremendous defense but winning high-scoring affairs. They scored at least 40 points in four of six wins last year and allowed at least 42 in two losses.

Perhaps in anticipation of the FBS move, Gill sat a few of his more impressive 2017 recruits, even though they might have been able to help during a significant youth movement. Calvert and Gandy-Golden (who finished the season with 69 catches for 1,066 yards and 10 touchdowns) were both sophomores, and 33 of 55 line starts went to freshmen and sophomores. The secondary was led by three sophomores as well.

The defensive front seven is experiencing some turnover, and leading rusher Carrington Mosley is gone, but quite a few of last year’s better players return, and LU returns 81 percent of its overall production, seventh in FBS. And against a schedule that features only three teams projected better than 86th in S&P+, the Flames should be able to find some wins.

Long-term ... we’ll see. It’s hard to determine how well Gill might recruit or how long a burst of fan energy lasts when there’s no obvious bowl bid or conference title to play for. But in the short-term, LU should hold its own.

* McCaw’s Liberty.edu bio is a disorienting read, citing that “while Baylor enjoyed extraordinary academic and athletic success under McCaw’s leadership, the department made dramatic strides administratively, too.” Indeed, the Bears won a lot of football games. With no downside or controversy whatsoever, apparently.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Southern Methodist
Turner Gill
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Pass efficiency was the name of the game for LU last season under coordinator Joe Dailey. (Does that name sound familiar? It’s because Dailey played QB at Nebraska and North Carolina. He threw for 2,025 yards at NU in 2004, then transferred and threw for 1,316 for UNC in 2006.)

For the season, Calvert’s passer rating was a decent 137.7; for comparison, Fresno State’s Marcus McMaryion had a 137.7 at the FBS level, Washington State’s Luke Falk a 137.0. Calvert’s 2017 was LU’s best since predecessor (and current Baltimore Ravens reserve) Josh Woodrum was posting a 145-plus rating in both 2013 and 2014. But he was dramatically more successful in wins than losses.

  • Liberty passing in six wins: 149-for-240 (62%), 2,008 yards (13.5 per completion), 18 TD, 2 INT, 155.4 passer rating | 42.5 points per game
  • Liberty passing in five losses: 112-for-210 (53%), 1,401 yards (12.5 per completion), 11 TD, 5 INT, 121.9 passer rating | 20.6 points per game
NCAA Football: Liberty at Baylor
Stephen Calvert
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

LU begins with six opponents that had shaky pass defenses last year. The first five FBS opponents ranked 90th or worse in Passing S&P+, and FCS opponent Norfolk State was 64th in FCS pass efficiency defense. Granted, things pick up quickly — three straight November road opponents (UMass, Virginia, and Auburn) ranked 46th or better — but there might be some confidence-building opportunities.

Not only does Calvert return, he gets last year’s top four targets back. Gandy-Golden was the star, but slot receiver Damian King (a former three-star recruit like Calvert) was a solid possession option, and Cephas Reddick and B.J. Farrow averaged 15.9 and 17.8 yards per catch, respectively. Gill added a couple of JUCO transfers (WR Kevin Shaa and TE Chris Barrett) for good measure.

This is an experienced passing game, and that’s a good thing because the run game has all sorts of questions. Leading returning rusher Frankie Hickson averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2017, and while senior Kentory Matthews averaged an intriguing 7.3, a lot of his damage came in the blowout win over Morehead State.

Gill does at least bring a line with FBS size to FBS, though. Junior guard Dontae Duff is a 310-pound, two-year starter who made the All-Big South team last year, and of the six returnees with starting experience, four are at least 295 pounds. Plus, each of four incoming freshmen are at least 305 pounds, including monstrous three-star signee Henry Chibueze (6’3, 340).

Looking ahead, LU will have to replae Matthews, King, Reddick, Farrow, and starting left tackle Julio Lozano in 2019. But the core of Calvert, Gandy-Golden, Duff, and perhaps more recent signees like three-star sophomore receiver DJ Stubbs, will all be scheduled to return. So whatever numbers the Flames post in 2018, they might be able to top the next fall.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Baylor
Antonio Gandy-Golden
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Liberty’s pass defense was pretty impressive in 2017. The Flames allowed a passer rating of 128.9 and a completion rate of just 53.6 percent. They were a little bit unlucky with interceptions — national averages suggest that their 63 passes defensed should have produced about 14 interceptions, but LU managed to hold onto only seven — but the secondary was strong, despite a mostly non-existent pass rush.

This was particularly impressive, considering how young the secondary was. Safeties Tillmon, Rion Davis, and Elijah Benton were all sophomores, and the only senior was corner Chris Turner.

It appears Tillmon could move to linebacker, but safety is loaded. Plus, senior corner Jeremy Peters was not only first on the team in passes defensed (11), but also fourth in tackles for loss (four). The secondary is a strength even before you factor in JUCO corner Bejour Wilson or recent three-star cornerback recruits Keith Best (a redshirt freshman) and Hunter Goetz (true freshman).

NCAA Football: Liberty at Baylor
Brandon Tillmon
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

So if the pass defense was so good, why did LU give up more than 30 points per game last year? Because opponents never had to pass. Opponents averaged 5.5 yards per carry overall; the Flames lost high-scoring games to Kennesaw State (498 rushing yards) and Monmouth (364) because they couldn’t keep from getting run over. Now, both KSU and Monmouth were playoff-caliber FCS squads, but things aren’t going to get any easier in a higher subdivision.

But on the bright side, this makes the turnover in the front six a little bit less of a concern — losing key pieces from your weakest unit doesn’t hurt quite as bad! LU does return its best (only?) pass rusher in senior end Juwan Wells (11 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) and brings decent size with tackles like 300-pound sophomore Elisha Mitchell, 295-pound junior Ralfs Rusins, and 290-pound senior Mitchell Hurtado.

Still, even with decent size, LU got pushed around last year, and that was with a pretty good run-supporting linebacker in Solomon McGinty, who has since graduated. Moving Tillmon to linebacker could help, but LU will be relying on some unheralded upperclassmen to raise their games at LB. No guarantees there.

Coordinator Robert Wimberly has been with Gill since the Kansas days, and at its best, Liberty has produced speed and attacking potential. One way or another, Wimberly has to figure out how to bring some of that back. Wells, Tillmon, and Peters give him three good attackers. Now he has to unearth three or four more.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Virginia Tech
Juwan Wells
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

DJ Stubbs has yet to make a major impact in the LU receiving corps, but he was solid in returns. He averaged a decent 6.8 yards per punt return and produced 83 yards in two kick returns. He and Frankie Hickson give the Flames nice return options.

In the legs department, punter Trey Turner is gone, but kicker Alex Probert appears to be solid — he made 10 of 11 field goals under 40 yards and went a solid 4-for-9 beyond 40. His kickoff coverage unit did give up a 95-yard touchdown, but LU kickoffs were otherwise pretty efficient.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Old Dominion 114 2.2 55%
8-Sep at Army 92 -9.1 30%
15-Sep Norfolk State NR 30.1 96%
22-Sep North Texas 86 -5.7 37%
29-Sep at New Mexico 111 -4.2 40%
6-Oct at New Mexico State 100 -6.7 35%
13-Oct Troy 78 -8.2 32%
20-Oct Idaho State NR 20.4 88%
3-Nov at Massachusetts 102 -6.6 35%
10-Nov at Virginia 73 -13.5 22%
17-Nov at Auburn 5 -36.8 2%
24-Nov New Mexico State 100 -1.7 46%
Projected S&P+ Rk 115
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 113 / 107
Projected wins 5.2
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 130 / N/A
2017 TO Luck/Game +3.4 PPG
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (77%, 85%)

The short-term could be pretty fun in Lynchburg. The Flames’ first FBS home schedule: Old Dominion (55 percent win probability, per S&P+), Norfolk State (96 percent), North Texas (37 percent), Troy (32 percent), Idaho State (88 percent), and NMSU (46 percent).

The home slate should produce at least three wins and maybe four, and road dates against New Mexico, NMSU (yes, the indie Aggies and Flames are playing twice) are far from unwinnable, especially with what should be a strong passing game.

In all, S&P+ projects about 5.2 wins for LU in its FBS debut. That includes two FCS wins, obviously, but that’ll do.

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