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Preview: Virginia Tech Hokies vs the Liberty University Flames

A much needed warmup that could get hotter than we’d like

NCAA Football: Liberty at West Virginia
Flames’s Zac Parker at Morgantown. WVU won big but Liberty fought hard.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Didn’t I just write up something about this last season? Oh, that was baseball, and the Flames are a much more capable opponent than the Flames football team. Well, that’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

The Liberty Flames are a newer member of the Big South Conference of Division 1 FCS. The Conference only added football in 2002, and Liberty was one of the early teams that represented the sport. Radford University, our much beloved Pulaski County neighbor is a member, but Radford doesn’t have a varsity football team. (We won’t talk about their baseball team, that gave us serious headaches last season.) The Big South is going through an unfortunate churn with many schools like Coastal Carolina and VMI leaving for other conferences. That makes consistent high level play a bit of a scheduling challenge.

Liberty is coached by Turner Gill, who took over the foundering program in 2011, and has made a serious turn around in the team’s results. The win loss record prior to his arrival was not bad, but conference championships were elusive. Liberty took the Big South title three seasons running between 2012 and 2014. There was a bit of a step back in 2015 with a .500 conference record. The problem of the hemorrhage of quality opponents from the conference has not escaped attention.

Over the last three years Gill’s record stands at:

2013 Win/Loss Record:

Conference: 4-1

Overall: 8-4

2014 Win/Loss Record:

Conference: 4-1

Overall: 9-5

2015 Win/Loss Record:

Conference: 3-3

Overall: 6-5

With last season’s dip in performance and a draw for a conference record, Coach Gill is unlikely to let his team off any hooks. The current roster boasts some real FBS level and sized talent. Presumed starting Quarterback Stephon Masha replaces Josh Woodrum. Masha played in eight games last season, but performed mostly running duties. Last season’s aggregate statistics might prove instructive, if not indicative of how the team will play on September 3. The roster is loaded with underclassmen and the fact that Masha is backed up by three true Freshmen might be a bit of a challenge for them.

The truth is that Liberty is a classic FBS vs FCS match up, where there the Championship Series team is at a distinct disadvantage. Liberty’s probable starting Quarterback barely played last season. The problem is that Tech’s defense is still vulnerable to the running Quarterback attack, at least until the Hokies prove otherwise.

I see Liberty to coming to Lane to play football to win for many reasons, but pride and redemption might just top the list. It’s tough to come off of three winning (in Liberty’s case championship) seasons, and then post a push. Hokie Nation knows that all too well.

Look for the Flames to try to surprise the Hokies, hit hard, move the football and try to exert some defensive pressure on a brand new and potentially shaky Tech offense. Coach Gill will want his team back at the top of the conference because that’s the only way that he’s got a good chance to make the FCS Division 1 playoffs. A win in Blacksburg would be serious medicine. That’s probably not going to happen, but a good showing would put Liberty on a good foot to challenge its more appropriately matched opponents this season. What’s nice about the FCS system is that a loss or two won’t toss out an entire season to challenge for a championship.

Without seeing much of Tech’s actual offense, or its starting lineup there is little that can be said about projections on how we will fare by 4:00 pm on Saturday September 3. The chances are, though that the game will look much like the Furman game of last season. Eventually Liberty will run out of gas, and road. The question will be how many Quarterbacks will Justin Fuente play? What sorts of ‘basic’ play structure will we see, and will there be some actual risk taking in the game on the part of the Hokies?

I know that if I were coaching the Flames, I’d certainly take as many interesting calculated risks as possible. I’d be surprising, and as unpredictable as my early season playbook and inexperienced QB would allow.

This is not a trap game. We aren’t on a short week coming off of a difficult (some would say unfair) loss in a bruising football game. Look for the Hokies to dominate by the late 2nd quarter, and have a good deal of the kids on the bench playing as the 2nd half wears on. We’ll see if Justin Fuente will turn of the jets, in Beamer fashion, or keep putting the ball up. Not to embarrass the Flames, but to get much needed practice and confidence before the Tennessee game.

The Gobbler Country staff will have their pregame predictions up by Friday September 2nd. Let’s see how we do for Game 1.