Opinion: NCAA Exception Could Have Consequences

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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)


Liberty University is in some ways better positioned to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision than Old Dominion was when the Monarchs announced in 2012 that they would play big-boy football.

Liberty has a state-of-the-art, 19,200-seat stadium and a stunning, 48,000-square-foot football training facility. It also has a $1 billion endowment and, because it's a private school, doesn't face the spending restrictions to which public schools must adhere .

The school has a TV network that reaches more than 80 million homes and a dedicated following of millions of evangelical Christians.

So at first glance, it appears the NCAA did the right thing when it granted Liberty permission last week to compete in FBS as an independent.

Yet I wonder if Liberty officials have a grasp on how difficult the move will be, or if the NCAA understands that it may have opened a Pandora's box.

Alarmed by the number of Football Championship Subdivision schools trying to move up, the NCAA applied the brakes in 2011, decreeing programs must have an invitation from an FBS conference. Liberty had failed to gain admission to a conference the past five years.

Liberty's association with conservative political causes could be one of the reasons the Flames were left standing at the altar after wooing the Sun Belt and Conference USA. The late Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded the school, also founded the Moral Majority. His son, Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr., embraced Donald Trump's presidential candidacy early-on.

The school recently made a controversial move when it hired Ian McCaw as athletic director months after he resigned at Baylor in the wake of the sexual assault scandal there.

We don't know all of the reasons why the NCAA granted Liberty an exception, but it surely will lead to other FCS schools contemplating a similar waiver request. James Madison, Delaware, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State and others have expressed varying degrees of interest in moving up.

JMU, the defending FCS national champion, almost certainly won't opt for football independence. But that door is open to others if they want to walk through.

ODU athletic director Wood Selig said enough schools could move up to form a new 8-team football league.

"This has the potential to dramatically change the landscape," he said.

It could take years for all of that to play out, but Liberty faces immediate hurdles, including scheduling 12 games a year as an independent. Ask Massachusetts how difficult that can be. The Minutemen struggled to piece together a schedule in 2016 after they were forced to leave the Mid-American Conference.

Liberty must have three FBS home games in 2018 and five in 2019, and many schools, including ODU, have already filled their schedules both seasons.

Moreover, the NCAA makes it difficult to move up by essentially making schools play a couple of meaningless seasons.

I watched the two-year transition process at ODU, and it was painful. ODU last competed in the FCS playoffs in 2012. The Monarchs didn't return to postseason play again until last season, when they defeated Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl.

In 2017, Liberty will play a Big South schedule, but won't be eligible for the league title or the FCS playoffs. The Flames' statistics won't count in either FCS or FBS. In a sense, they're in no-man's land. They will have little, or nothing, to play for.

In 2018, the Flames move up to FBS, but can't go to a bowl unless there aren't enough bowl-eligible teams.

By the time 2019 rolls around, and the Flames are eligible for a bowl, many of Liberty's players will have been stepped over. When you move up, you must recruit bigger and better players. Guys who are starting now may not be good enough to play in a couple of years.

Speaking of bowls, Liberty has no bowl tie-in, so even if the Flames go 9-3, there is no guarantee of a postseason bid.

Liberty also must receive permission for its basketball, baseball and other teams to participate in the Big South Conference, a necessity if you want to go to postseason play. That seems likely, but isn't guaranteed.

The old adage, be careful what you wish for, could apply here. Only time will tell whether Liberty can navigate the hurdles ahead or whether the Flames bit off more than they can chew.

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February 20, 2017


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