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Know Your 2011 Opponents: Liberty

I have a confession to make: there is something I really like about Liberty University.

As a guy who writes about college football an awful lot, I end up drawing on my own college experiences on South Mountain frequently.

And compared to hard-working, hard-partying, casual Lehigh, Liberty is just incredibly different.

It makes for good writing.

And when the Flames come to Lehigh in September, fans of both dissimilar teams are hoping that they and the Mountain Hawks share one thing, and one thing only: a ranking in the FCS Top 25. (more)

In the Heck and Damnation part of the country (that is any purple state north of Maryland), a mention of Liberty University probably results in false stereotypes. Much of this has to do with its religious founder, the late Jerry Falwell, and while its worldview is (extremely) conservative, it's ridiculous to marginalize them as an institution out of hand because of their politics.

That said, Liberty's religious mission, strict mandates for its students, and its Lawrence Welk-esque policies mark a stark contrast to the student experience at Lehigh, which has been decidedly secular since Asa Packer founded the place in 1865.

With thunderous policies on its web site like "Behavioral standards which include the prohibition of drug, alcohol and tobacco use, coed residence halls, and sexual promiscuity," it makes me pause and wonder: how many of these prohibitions did I break during my first semester alone at Lehigh?

And other bits of Liberty's mission statement also might make one pause as well. While their stance against "political correctness" might be one I share, perhaps their mention of "absolute repudiation" against it might be, well, a bit strong. And, honestly, the "total rejection of socialism" can only be interpreted as funny. Yes, I totally reject the policies of Francois Mitterand and the awful nationalization of companies that resulted from his tragic time as president of France.. Can I come in now?  Please?

It's not so much that I agree, or disagree, with Liberty's policies that mandate convocation and chapel attendance three times a week, or its "modest dress code" of business casual around the campus. Far be it me to critique their policies, which are obviously working for them and make for a good campus environment for its students.

But it's just so incredibly different from my own experience at Lehigh, where sweatpants and T-shirts were the norm in residence halls, classes, football games - basically, everywhere. (Except for my Marketing 101 class, but that's a story for another time.)

It's kind of amusing to think that one of the courses that I took as an undergraduate, the International Relations course "The Soviet Union and the Third World", not only would never be offered at Liberty, but also would be grounds for expulsion.

It's also interesting to wonder if I would have survived with mandatory curfews as well - without 4AM runs to Wawa and sleepless nights at the computer lab, it's a very open question as to whether I would have graduated.

But when you get right down to it, I like Liberty. It's just such a different scholastic experience that it's amazing to look at all the differences with my Patriot League, secular, Heck and Damnation education and just wonder "what if?".

And that's precisely why I like them.  As different goes, you can't get much different than Liberty.

(By the way, folks that run Liberty University: I sure hope you were serious about that repudiating political correctness thing, for this blog posting, um, sure isn't politically correct.)

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Another aspect to the differences between Lehigh and Liberty is the intensity of the support of their sports teams.

Unless they're on the brink of the NCAA's, too frequently Lehigh students can't seem to be bothered by showing up at athletic contests, especially football games.

Liberty students, on the other hand, have one of the most rabid fan bases in all of the FCS.

It's not often that an institution of higher learning has a student booster club that boasts more than 700 members. The "Student Flames Club" - which, incidentally, has a corporate sponsorship - provides nearly 1,000 fans per home game, and many away games. Many wear red body paint. Many also say stuff you might not expect from a school that outlaws sexual promiscuity.

Watch a Liberty game on the Family network (part of the Flames Sports Network), and you'll see oceans of fans in red or blue. Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia averaged more than 14,000 fans per game in 2010.

Recently, Liberty expanded Williams stadium to a capacity of 19,200 - including luxury boxes.

A marching band of over 100 members traveled with Liberty last time as well, adding to the incredible support of Flames fans. It also made for a "big-time" atmosphere at Lafayette, where the visiting side filled the away stands at Fisher Field.

It may have the same effect at Lehigh this year as well.

Might Lehigh be outdrawn by the intense, amazing road support of the Flames? It may actually happen.

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It would be one thing if Flames fans had that sort of following, and head coach Danny Rocco fielded a .500 team. But not only is Liberty perennially a powerhouse in the scholarship Big South Conference - Rocco has a 40-16 record in the past four years at the helm - they've been a whisker away from the FCS playoffs the past three years as well.

In those three years, Liberty has some pretty interesting scalps they've acquired - and, interestingly, there's a Lehigh connection with many of them.

In 2008, the Flames knocked off Elon, 26-3, who was then coached by former Lehigh head coach Pete Lembo.

In 2009, Liberty beat our biggest rival, Lafayette, 19-13, avenging a 35-21 loss at home the year before.

And in 2010, Liberty beat FBS Ball State - 27-23 - a year before Lembo left the Phoenix to become the Cardinal head coach.

Worringly for Lehigh, Liberty returns its best offensive weapon the last two years - and possibly the most talented offensive player that the Mountain Hawks may be going against during the 2011 regular season.

Senior QB Mike Brown is a do-everything, athletic quarterback. His trophy case speaks for itself - two-time Big South offensive player of the year, and a preseason player of the year mention in 2011. His stats are impressive at any level: 223-for-351 passing, 2,956 passing yards, and 23 TDs passing. He was ranked 7th nationally in 2010 with a 149.6 passer efficiency rating, and in addition was 8th in passing yards per game (268.73).

Brown also led the Flames in rushing gaining 854 yards, while scoring 9 TDs rushing as well. When he goes back to pass you don't know if the speedster will be passing the ball, or tucking and running - making him an extremely dangerous weapon in Rocco's multiple-spread offense.

Equally as worrying for the Mountain Hawks, a significant number of Brown's targets are also returning in 2011.

Senior WR Chris Summers (1,081 yards, 15 TDs), junior WR Pat Kelly (635 yards, 4 TDs), and senior WR B.J. Hayes (546 yards, 1 TD) - Brown's top three targets last year, return, as well as their second-leading rusher, junior RB SirChauncey Holloway (524 yards, 10 TDs).

About the only good news on offense is that they'll be executing their offense with an almost brand-new offensive line, anchored by 6'4, 280 lb junior OT Malcolm Boyd.

Defensively, Liberty runs a very similar 3-4 to what Lehigh runs, one of the hallmarks of a Danny Rocco-led team along with minimizing turnovers and minimizing penalties. Rocco is a notorious perfectionist in this area, giving his team a hard time for even singular penalties during games.

Key to a great 3-4 defense is a great nose guard, and with 385 lb senior NG Asa Chapman, they have one of the best in the Big South. (And, no, that's not a typo - he really is 385 lbs.) He has to be considered an elite run-stopper at the FCS level.

On the plus side, almost all of Liberty's linebacking unit graduated last year, leaving junior LB Demetrius Ward (17 tackles) as the top man in the linebacking corps going into the season. Sophomore LB Scott Hyland (17 tackles) also looks to be a name in the front seven as well. Senior BC KaJuan Lee (17 tackles) also returns in what might be shaping up to be an inexperienced defense overall.

Finally, Liberty's special teams units, with Hayes returning punts, senior P Mike Larsson (41.7 yards per punt), and senior PK Matt Bevins (1st nationally in field goals per game, 1.82), Lehigh might be facing the best special teams unit they might face all year.

It may not be politically correct to say so, but Liberty has one hell of a team coming to Murray Goodman Stadium in Week Four. It's going to be a big challenge for the Mountain Hawks to beat this team, and that's no joke.

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