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Know Your 2012 Opponents: Liberty

Lehigh's first three contests of the 2012 football season all, arguably, have specific themes attached to them.

The first game, against Monmouth, is "introductions".  It will be the first glimpse of the 16th-tanks Mountain Hawks, also has a local flavor, as the Hawks are relatively close by in West Long Branch, NJ.

The second game, against Central Connecticut State, is "bullseye".  The Blue Devils, opening their newly-renovated stadium, will see Lehigh in what's likely to be the biggest crowd ever on the New Britain campus.

The third game, against Princeton, is "bragging rights".  Locally, many high-academic recruits are asked to pick either Lehigh or Princeton, and wins against the Ivy League have a special, backyard feel to them.

But this game against Liberty unquestionably has as its theme: "national".  It's going to be the one game, most likely, that the Mountain Hawks will be able to showcase their program to not just the Northeast, but the entire country.

It's no secret that I am very much looking forward to my trip this fall to Lynchburg, Virginia to watch Lehigh take on one of my favorite Mountain Hawk opponents, the Liberty Flames.

Last year I explained some of the reasons why I like Liberty University in the FCS so much - that the college experience of a typical Liberty kid was so different than my own, it's a bit mind-boggling to me.

And Liberty, out of the Big South Conference, boasts a national visibility for its football program that every other FCS school can only dream about.

It helps that they have been good.  For the last four years, they have inhabited the Top 25 at some point during the year, and for four years, they've been on the brink of making the playoffs - and just missing, whether through heartbreak or getting Woofed out of the last spot.

But few college football teams can boast that they have their own dedicated TV network to beam their games into millions of homes nationally.

Liberty broadcasts all of its home football games live on FamilyNet, a Christian broadcast network that reaches 30 states and appears in 15.7 million households.

Lehigh's situation for games on TV - with home games on DirecTV and Service Electric 2 locally, and some national games on Fox College Sports and CBS Sports Network - is pretty good when it comes to the FCS, but it's not the same as, well, your own dedicated TV network.

The Flames Sports Network, run entirely though the Flames' athletics department, consists of a broadcast team of Mike Tilley (play-by-play) and Ray Jones (color commentator), and a large cast of "trained professionals who have worked for most of the major sporting networks in the United States," Liberty's website boasts.

To put this in perspective, BYU, Texas, and Notre Dame have, effectively, their own TV networks dedicated to their coverage.   Liberty joins this exclusive group, and individually for them, it's great for their school.

And their TV deal a part of Liberty's master plan, which is no secret.  They want to play FBS football.

No bigger a name on the Liberty campus as the current chancellor and son of the founder of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., made their intentions clear back in May, in the height of the conference realignment season, that FBS was, and is, the ultimate goal.

“Competing at the highest levels of collegiate competition has been the vision for Liberty University since its founding in 1971,” he said in a press release. “It is exciting to watch the fulfillment of that dream taking shape as Liberty now has the financial resources, facilities, academic support and athletics professionals necessary to move forward.”

It's clear that Liberty has put its money where its mouth is.  Williams Stadium, Liberty's on-campus home for football, above, was recently upgraded to 19,200 seats, including a brand-new press tower and luxury box suites.  The Flames average attendance in 2011 was over 16,000 fans per contest, and they're hungry for more, with a potential planned expansion of the stadium to 30,000 seats.

Their student section and their fans are the real deal, packing the stadium and greeting opponents with a sea of red.  And it's a big reason why I want to go down there.  It's a big-time college football atmosphere.

So what's stopping them from "moving up"?

Ironically, what's keeping them from FBS might be their biggest asset as a school - their TV network.

NCAA rules currently dictate that FCS schools cannot "move up" to the FBS level without an invite from an existing FBS conference.

That means that the conferences that would realistically want to sign Liberty up as an FBS member would also have to accept FamilyNet as the broadcaster of their home football games - which would, in turn, diminish any TV value Liberty might offer the conference, while also making the Flames a flight risk.

Think of it like this: Would Conference USA take a gamble on Liberty with this TV deal?  If Liberty holds onto their home football games, that doesn't offer a lot of value with their existing deal.  Liberty is not a perennial basketball power.

And what would stop them from deciding after three years to just go independent, which is exactly what BYU did just last year to the Mountain West, causing great instability in that conference?

That could be one reason that the last round of expansion, which saw Old Dominion head to Conference USA instead and left Liberty without a new FBS conference, even though the MAC (no national TV deal) and the Sun Belt (again, no national TV deal) were reportedly looking for new members.

If there was a path to FBS independent status from FCS, you have to believe that it would be the solution that would fit Liberty's intentions the best.  The Flames see themselves as a national, Christian university, much like BYU sees themselves as a national, Mormon university.  Both have dedicated cable networks, and both don't wish to share the spoils with conference mates.

Until or unless the NCAA gives them a path, it looks like Liberty's going to be in the Big South, and FCS football. For now.

But from the Lehigh perspective,  Liberty's national reach and big-time atmosphere makes it a special place to get a victory.

And if the Mountain Hawks win, it will send the message down South and nationally that this is a team that demands your respect.

*****

So what about the nuts and bolts of this Flames squad - who are they, and what do they run?  Brand new head coach Turner Gill doesn't want you to know the answer to that question.

Fresh from his stint at Kansas of the Big XII, one of Gill's first moves as head coach - to the great consternation of the local media - was his announcement that all his practices this year would be closed in the summer preseason, which he told Chris Lang of the Lynchburg News & Advance:

I asked Gill on Thursday why he has instituted this policy, and he said it was simple. He has nothing against the fans or the media. He wants to have a connection with the fan base. But with a nearly entirely new coaching staff (only cornerbacks coach Marshall Roberts is a holdover from the ‘11 staff of Danny Rocco), Gill wants distractions minimized and focus maximized. He said he feels that can be better accomplished if practice is off limits to everyone.

It's an unusual move, especially at the FCS level, where managing and keeping the local press happy is generally an important part of a head coaches' job.

But Lang has his ways of finding things out, and he's discovered that the Flames will be running more of a pro-set offense rather than Rocco's spread offense from last year.

Questions abound whether the starting nod at QB will go to junior QB Brian Hudson, who backed up last year's graduated starter, QB Mike Brown, or extremely highly regarded redshirt freshman QB Josh Woodrum.  The latest report from the LN&A reported that “The way it’s been going, it’s been up and down,” Gill told them.   “I can definitely say it’s going to be the week of the game [announcing a starter]. And it actually may not be up until game time.  If it goes like it has in the last two weeks, then more than likely we’ll end up playing both.”

Both are hard to judge without any serious game time yet for either player  Hudson only got significant time against patsy sub-D-I school Kentucky Weslyan last year, but it seems clear that both players, like Brown, are pretty elusive runners to go with their passing abilities.

Senior WR Pat Kelly will likely be the primary target for either QB, while senior RB SirChauncey Holloway and junior RB Aldreakis Allen are two more familiar faces Lehigh fans will remember from last year's meeting at Murray Goodman Stadium.

On defense, Rocco's 3-4 has been replaced with a 4-3 defense, but many of the key contributor's to last year's defense will remain, like junior DT Francis Bah (11 1/2 tackles for loss), sophomore LB Nick Sigmon (60 tackles, 1 INT), and an all-American candidate at corner, senior CB Kevin Fogg (3 interceptions) who also happens to be one of the leading kickoff returners in the nation (771 yards, 3 TDs).

In their historic season last year, Lehigh squeezed by nationally-ranked Liberty 27-24 in a stern test of their football team.  It was a show-me game.  This year the show-me game makes its way down to Lynchburg.








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