The FBS club in the Commonwealth gets a new member this year: the Liberty Flames. Liberty’s jump up this year puts Virginia’s FBS count at four schools: the Virginia Cavaliers, Old Dominion Monarchs, and some cow college down 81.
Turner Gill revived his career in Lynchburg after a stint at Kansas snuffed out much of the buzz he earned at Buffalo. In six seasons, Gill’s teams have finished tied for first in the Big South conference four times. 2014 was the high-water mark at 9-5 before bowing out in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.
A sizzling passing game powered the Flames in 2017. As they move up to FBS competition, they do so with a roster full of production and experience.
2017 Season: 6-5 (2-3 Big South)
Liberty kicked off its final season in FCS with a win over an FBS team—and a Power Five one at that (Baylor). But a 3-0 start was chased away by a four-game losing streak, including an 0-2 start to Big South play. Late-season wins over Duquesne and Presbyterian pushed the Flames to 4-2 at home, but a road trip to Charleston Southern ended the season on a loss.
Players to watch:
Stephen Calvert, QB: In the win over Baylor, Calvert set school records for single-game passing yards (447), passing attempts (60), and completions (44). By the end of the year, he held the season record for yards (3,363) and touchdowns (29), and had tied the record for season completions (257).
Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR: Calvert’s favorite receiver. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Gandy-Golden can be a matchup nightmare. He led the Flames with 1,066 receiving yards and a very #nice number of receptions.
B.J. Farrow, WR: The other high-scoring receiver. Despite logging less than half as many receptions as Gandy-Golden, Farrow tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions (10). The three he caught against Morehead State in 2017 tied a school single-game record.
Jeremy Peters, CB: Led the team in interceptions in 2017, with 3. OK size for an FBS corner, at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds. Also added 8 break-ups and 11 passes defended.
Juwan Wells, DL: Wells led the Flames in tackles (74), tackles for loss (11.5), and sacks (4.5). The “rush end” has been all-conference in the Big South in both 2016 and 2017, with a preseason All-America selection to his credit last year.
Mascot grade: C (for crotch)
Props, I guess, for not going with anthropomorphic fire, despite the official nickname. Sparky the Eagle is fine. But given that this groin-busting mishap is one of the first search results for “Sparky the Eagle,” don’t expect him to produce any little eaglets for the next generation.
As you might have guessed from the Players to Watch section, there is A LOT of returning production on both sides of the ball. For a newcomer to FBS, opening the season at 115th in S&P+ isn’t too shabby. But that turnover luck from last year suggests the possibility of some regression to the mean, especially with a slate of opponents that should be tougher than 2017’s.
Liberty’s offensive strength is its passing game; that plays into Virginia’s defensive strength of the defensive backfield. Liberty’s offensive weakness—the run game—means the Flames should not be able to exploit the apparent weakness in UVA’s defensive line. So that side of the ball looks like a wash. But Liberty was not great against the run last year, and that’s where UVA should have its biggest advantage. A bulked up Cavalier offensive line with almost a season’s worth of experience for the youngest pieces should make the difference, opening up plenty of room for Bryce Perkins, Jordan Ellis, and the rest of the UVA ground game.
Virginia 41, Liberty 28