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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)


Take a stroll through the Williams Stadium concourse. Step down to the field level and look up to the scoreboard behind the east stands. It's hard to miss a unifying theme at Liberty's football stadium.

Blue and white logos branded with "FBS Bound" dominate. They're all around the sprawling campus on Lynchburg's south side. Everywhere you look, there's a reminder that the Flames will be playing with the big boys of college football in 2018.

What about this season?

The Flames are in their final season as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA, in what is the first of a two-year transition process to become a full-fledged member of the Football Bowl Subdivision and join schools such as Virginia Tech, Virginia and Old Dominion, to play against college football's premier teams.

In 2018, the Flames will play an FBS schedule, but won't be bowl-eligible until 2019.

"We want to hit the ground running this season, that way we have a full head of steam going into that FBS year," said sophomore offensive lineman Ethan Crawford of the Flames. "It's a thing where all of us as individuals, we're coming together and we know this isn't going to be the type of year where we might not get rings or anything like that, even if we win the Big South."

Liberty will play this season as a member of the Big South Conference, the Flames' home in the FCS since 2002, but won't be eligible for the conference title or the FCS playoffs.

That means this season essentially becomes a foundation for the transition to the FBS.

For starters, Flames coach Turner Gill has to begin balancing scholarships. FCS teams can carry a maximum of 63 scholarship players through a season, while that number jumps to 85 at the FBS level.

During the two-year transition period before LU becomes bowl eligible in 2019, the Flames must average 76.5 scholarships, which is 90 percent of the maximum 85 that are offered at the FBS level.

"I think the most important plan that Liberty will need to have is how they transition from 63 scholarships to 85 scholarships and remain competitive and win while you're doing it," said Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder.

Wilder led the Monarchs through the same transition in 2013 and '14 as ODU moved from the Colonial Athletic Association to Conference USA. In the first transitional season ODU went 8-4, and then the Monarchs went 6-6 in the second year playing an eight-game conference schedule.

"We managed to stay successful as we were going from 63 to 85 scholarships," Wilder said, "and that's really the most important thing is how you manage going from 63 to 85 and you help yourself with who you can recruit by continuing to win football games."

Gill faces the same predicament. He has sought advice from Wilder, UConn coach Randy Edsall and others.

Gill plans on having 74 or 75 scholarship players for this season and then add up to four scholarships through mid-year enrollees. He said that will count toward the scholarship total for the 2017-18 season.

Gill's goal is to be at 85 scholarships for the 2018 season.

The Flames will play only one FBS team this season, at Baylor, and then play FCS opponents in the final 10 games. That includes the full Big South docket with a road game against Charleston Southern, LU's finale in the conference and the subdivision.

"We've got to look at all these games that we're playing, that these are quality opponents that we're playing. This is our last year playing these Big South opponents and we want to beat them all," Crawford said.

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August 30, 2017


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