Liberty University Football 2017: How to Gauge Success

As most die-hard college football fans know, Liberty University is breaking new ground and transitioning from an FCS football playing member of the Big South Conference into an independent football member of FBS. 2018 will mark the historic year as Liberty finishes the last year of transition and counts as an FBS school for their opponents. The Flames even have an outside chance at a bowl game if the season breaks perfect. Despite the 2018 schedule release, the new indoor practice facility opening, and the eventual expansion to Williams Stadium, there is one final hurdle to the 2018 season: the 2017 season.

Liberty is ineligible for the FCS playoffs by offering more scholarships than allowed due to their pending move up and they are ineligible to go bowling as a first-year transitioning FBS team; there is no postseason for Liberty to strive for. The FCS playoffs has traditionally been an elusive target for Liberty to hit and has been a promise unfulfilled until 2014 when Liberty went on the road to defeat the "totally not a rival" James Madison before falling on the road against Villanova. The Flames have come up short of the Big South's auto-bid due to tiebreakers several times and only have themselves to blame for it (but that's a story for another day). With no path to a postseason, and therefore little reward for winning, how can we gauge how successful Liberty does on the gridiron in 2017?

First things first: coaches are hired and fired on whether or not they win games assuming there are no scandals (even if there are it isn't a given the coach will be fired at some programs). 2017 or any other season won't be success for Liberty without winning. But where is the threshold for success? As making the FCS playoffs has always been a problem for Liberty, winning enough games to earn the Big South Conference's auto-bid is a good target even if Liberty cannot fulfill that opportunity. In a cruel twist of fate, Liberty winning the Big South only to be disqualified from going to the playoffs seems appropriate for a school so focused on winning but never quite achieving the goal.

Keeping the fan base engaged is important for all teams, especially for a school like Liberty moving up to FBS. Whether or not the FBS minimum attendance requirement of 15,000 is enforced or not, it is imperative to fill a stadium with as many fans as possible. Liberty unarguably has excellent facilities but they need the fans there to see it in person. First and foremost, winning helps bring the crowds but a chance at a postseason keeps them more involved and invested. There will be lots of hype for 2018, and rightfully so, but Liberty needs to provide promotions and other gimmicks to have the weekly attraction in 2017. Looking over their schedule, the Flames have six home football games and only one (Indiana State) doesn't have a designation such as homecoming or football alumni weekend. This appears to be a very good sign for the program thus far.

The last area to measure Liberty's success in 2017 won't be tangible for a couple years at least: recruiting. Believe it or not, but websites don't try real hard to track FCS football recruits like they do FBS, especially the Power 5 schools. Despite this handicap, there was some recruiting news unearthed by digging. This won't be easy to gauge and the results won't be evident for years but it is important nonetheless as recruiting is the future of football programs. As the Flames move to FBS, that will open up the doors to better recruits along with even more scholarships to offer the young men.

The other side of the coin for all these measures is things to avoid. Turner Gill has had a rather rough coaching career in which he was involved in some very drastic seasons. At Buffalo, he helped turn around one of the worst programs in the country before failing to be given much time to do the same to the woeful Kansas Jayhawks. At Liberty, he took the long view approach when building the roster, the same tactic he took at Kansas before being let go prior to seeing it to completion. It all looked according to plan in 2014 for Gill's squad before the bi-polar 2015 season and the bounce-back 2016 that never bounced-back. A third season in a row in which the season goes south would really kill the momentum the school is building for the move to FBS.

With Liberty having no postseason to strive for, they may be tempted to red-shirt as many of their top players as they can. This would be a very poor decision. Every FCS opponent is going to want to beat the "future FBS school" and those opponents will bring their A-game. Turner Gill's squad has had difficulty during his tenure despite having a full team; building momentum for 2018 would be handicapped with half a team. It would be quite an accomplishment to be bowl eligible in 2018 but compromising 2017 for 2018 without guaranteeing success in 2018 would be foolish. In addition, having the best players red-shirt could make them rusty for 2018. Coach Gill sitting out his the top players would be dicey for someone likely on a very hot seat who the new athletic director may want to replace with "his guy" (figuratively; not a reference to Art Briles which would be a whole new can of worms).

A poor record is usually accompanied by poor attendance, something else Liberty will have to avoid. Liberty has been in the top 10 of FCS attendance in recent years and it should continue in 2017. However, if the team falters or the weekly gimmicks don't pay off, the opponents aren't a big draw that will attract many casuals. With the University of Virginia right down the road, and Virginia Tech, James Madison, and Old Dominion not much further, local Virginians will have plenty of options to go see a live football game with at least one quality team or a big name involved. The Flames should always have their hardcore audience but gaining casuals and locals to fill the stands is important, especially with an expanded stadium on the way and current FBS Virginian schools being entrenched at the top level (with a slight exception to ODU but they are making the most of their move up in short time).

As the 2017 season concludes, it will be interesting to see how the Flames' season went. Will they rise to the occasion or fall under the pressure? What else would be a good way to measure how successful Liberty is in 2017? In my next Fan Post, I hope to compare recent move ups and make some targets for Liberty to hit in 2017 and beyond to call it a success.

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