Apr 3, 2007

Peering into the Big South: A look at how Flames football will fare against conference foes and rivals

by Jared Pierce, Asst. Sports Editor
After last week’s breakdown of the non-conference schedule, I will now take you inside the Big South opponents that Liberty football will face this season.

Last week I put that William and Mary are in the Atlantic-10, which they are not. They are in the Colonial Athletic Association. Their swim team is in the A-10. Ok, I made that up to save face. I think I got all the conferences right this time, though.

Liberty has only four conference games this season, which is standard practice in the Big South. Most teams in major Division-I schools play seven or eight conference games, though.
The difference is that the Big-10, SEC, Pac-10 and Big-12, to name a few, get automatic bowl berths for conference champions.

As the Big South currently has only five teams, it does not receive such a bid. However, once the 2008 season starts, two more teams will be joining the Big South – Presbyterian and Stony Brook.
Like last week, I offer you records, odd information and game predictions.
I figure since I won’t be here next year, the score predictions can’t hurt me — Unless of course I don’t hurry up and do my CSER and graduate.

Oct. 20: Charleston Southern (Away)
Mascot (Location): Buccaneers (S.C.)

Last Season’s Record: The Buccaneers finished a stellar 2006 season with a 9-2 record. They were 9-0 until a trip to Lynchburg sent them home with a 34-20 thrashing. It is doubtful Charleston Southern will sail as easy this season as a trip to Hawaii on Sept. 22 will toss a major hurdle in their path to perfection.

Key Personnel Loss: Senior quarterback Colin Drafts led the team in passing (2,665 yards) and rushing (513 yards). The Buccaneers will sorely miss his leadership and extraordinary athletic skills. Drafts’ back up, sophomore Eli Byrd, attempted only 13 passes during his freshman season.
Side Note: Prominently displayed on their Web site is a story about Arena Football Player Mike Brown playing in a game on ESPN2. When did this league become legitimate? They have sideline protectors so you can’t go out of bounds. They remind me of those gutter blockers used by little kids when bowling. Fans are allowed a ton of freedom at games (they can pull a Bartman and get applause) and teams typically score between 50 and 70 points. They are one “He Hate Me” away from the XFL.

Game Prediction: If the Bucs couldn’t get past the Flames with Drafts at the helm, they surely don’t stand much of a chance this year. Top receiver Maurice Price will be entering the NFL draft early, taking away a major offensive weapon. Liberty will have a more difficult challenge facing them on the road, but it will be the Flames who escape with a 24-21 victory.

Nov. 3: Coastal Carolina (Home)
Mascot (Location): Chanticleers (N.C.)

Last Season’s Record: The 2006 Big South Champion Chanticleers posted a 9-3 record and went undefeated in Big South play. Last season, Liberty gave up a devastating 21 points in the fourth quarter to drop a heartbreaker, 28-26.

Key Personnel Loss(es): Like Charleston Southern, the key loss on offense is a quarterback. Tyler Thigpen, who was the Big South Offensive Player of the Year in 2006 with more than 3,000 passing yards, worked out for pro scouts on March 8 to get ready for the 2007 NFL Draft on April 28. The exit of Big South all-time tackle leader Jamar Leath merits a second key loss mention. He had a staggering 116 tackles, but still lagged 11 tackles behind Charleston Southern’s Jada Ross.  
Side Note: Head Coach David Bennett is a graduate of the soon-to-be Big South foe Presbyterian. He graduated in 1984, the same year I was born. That’s irrelevant information, but I thought it was interesting.

Game Prediction: For an offense that lost its starting quarterback and running back, the Chanticleers are still in reasonably good shape. Back up running back Mike Tolbert, who had a 70-yard touchdown against the Flames last season, and a top-flight receiver corps return to Coastal Carolina next season.

On defense, the loss of Leath and safety Quinton Teal along with defensive lineman Sam Harper and defensive back Sergio Geiger will not pose much of a threat to the experienced Liberty offense. With the home crowd as a factor, Liberty wins 28-17.
Nov. 10: Virginia Military Institute (Home)
Mascot (Location): Keydets (Va.)

Last Season’s Record: In Head Coach Jim Reid’s first year, the Keydets finished with a dismal 1-10 record. Their lone win came in the season opener against Davidson College. Since 2002, VMI is 2-3 against Liberty and the home team has lost the three match-ups.
Key Personnel Loss: After sitting out much of the 2005 season with a knee injury, running back Sean Mizzer led the team in rushing yards (1,022) and touchdowns (10) and garnered the third most receiving yards (121). He was among the few seniors that stuck with the program after the brutal 2004 and 2005 seasons.

Side Note: While checking the VMI 2006 schedule, I noticed that the game against Army was on ESPN Classic. First, I didn’t know they televised live games. Second, would you really want to advertise that a game you lost 62-7 was on film somewhere? If it were me, I would “accidentally” delete the whole game off the schedule.

Game Prediction: The Keydets defense allowed an appalling 39.4 points per game, including 38 to Liberty. Of course, much of this can be attributed to the youth and inexperience of the defense. Of the top five tacklers on last year’s team, only one was a senior while the rest included two freshmen and two sophomores. VMI plays Liberty tough every season, and the defense returns some talented youngsters, but an inexperienced offense will cost them a road win. The Flames will put out a close 10-7 victory.

Nov. 17: Gardner-Webb (Away)
Mascot (Location): Bulldogs (N.C.)

Last Season’s Record: The Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb finished with an overall 6-5 record, but a 2-5 conference mark. One of those wins came against Liberty in Lynchburg, spoiling the Flames’ Parents Weekend. The Bulldogs don’t fear the Flames. Since 2002, they are 4-1 against Liberty with the only loss coming in Lynchburg during the 2004 season.

Key Personnel Loss: Overall points leader, kicker Hunter Smith, is one of the few Bulldogs leaving the team. It is usually a good sign when the worst loss, other than wide receivers Austin Gaines and Kory Alston, is a kicker. It is also cool that he has the same name as the Indianapolis Colts’ punter.
Side Note: The full mascot name for Gardner-Webb is the Runnin’ Bulldogs, yet they always go by just Bulldogs. Why would you want to drop the one part of your mascot that makes you different? Aside from the obvious Forrest Gump references, I think it is a decent moniker.

Game Prediction: The Bulldogs return a talented and experienced squad on both defense and offense. Combined with the game being in North Carolina and Gardner-Webb’s history of dominating the Flames, it could be an ugly game. This will be a tough season-ending loss for Liberty, 42-28.

If my predictions are right, the Flames with end conference play with a 3-1 record. I’m sure Coach Danny Rocco would love for me to be (mostly) right too.

Combined with my non-conference predictions from last week, the Flames would finish with an 8-3 record.

Of course, this flies in the face of my December guess of 6-5. Look at it this way, maybe I can write a season preview next semester and bump the record up to 10-1. Hey, I am allowed to change my mind, right?

Contact Jared Pierce at jpierce2@liberty.edu.
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